the exercise mistake I used to make

Oh, we get competing messages, don’t we. The latest befuddlement that we’re trying to get our heads around is this “exercise myth” idea. In the “everything you used to think was right is wrong” vane, it’s now being suggested (ready for it?) that…

exercising can make us fat.

What do I think of this?

125434 4 600 the exercise mistake I used to make
Photo by Rachel de Joode

Glad you asked, because it’s become a little project of mine lately – to wrap my head around the science of it all, and to encourage people to back off a little. To be gentle. To enjoy exercise and not use it as a self-flagellating mechanism of misery.

First, I should say…I used to do a lot of exercise

I used to self-flagellate. I used to run soft sand races and compete in 24-hour mountain bike races. I ran 10km to work when I edited magazines. And back. I went for 3-hour bush runs on weekends. I went to the gym, did chin-ups on first dates (and didn’t that end badly), and could beat my boyfriends in arm wrestles. Yes, it was an ego thing, too.

But a few years back it took its toll (the ego stuff as well). I kept trying to exercise hard. I kept getting injuries. And eventually I had to accept, that this way of doing things was somehow not right.

We are not meant to push ourselves. We are meant to move and be energised and get blood flowing…but beyond that, it’s just dumb and ineffective.

Exercise does not work for weight loss

Indeed, we’re designed to NOT lose weight when we exercise.

In his book Big Fat Lies, David Gillespie touches on the science that explains that we are designed to NOT burn off a lot of energy when we exercise. This is what enabled us to keep going and going all day and not waste away.

Then there’s the psychological element. If you’re doing exercise just for weight loss, don’t bother. Let me rephrase that. Exercise. Move. Keep active. But don’t expect it to make you lose a lot of weight.

A study compared hunter-gatherers in Tanzania with Western folk. It calculated the participants’ typical daily physical activity, energy expenditure and resting metabolic rates and found the former do move more, but they weren’t burning more calories. In fact, they found their metabolic rates the same as sedate Westerners. That’s the way we roll. Calories in doesn’t equal calories out. We’re far more complex than that.

To put things in perspective:

To burn off a piece of white bread you have to run up 20 flights of stairs.

In fact, it can make us fat!

A Time magazine cover story a while back – ”Why exercise won’t make you thin” – looked at all the evidence and found exercise may actually cause us to consume more calories than we expend, therefore negating the hard, sweaty work on the stair master. It jolted me awake when I read it. The article went as far as to say our over-exercising obsession is adding to the obesity epidemic.

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