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.

Add to this, exercise can stimulate markedly acute cortisol responses which can encourages fat gain, particularly around the abdomen.

On top of all this, exercise weakens us. It exhausts the brain’s self-control “muscle” which can mean we’ll give in to a crappy meal after a big workout or get a bit lax with our incidental exercise (we drive to the shops to buy a packet of Clinkers, instead of walking there). Because we’re royally buggered – both physically and psychically.

Time concluded that, “In short, it’s what you eat, not how hard you try to work it off, that matters more in losing weight. You should exercise to improve your health, but be warned: fiery spurts of vigorous exercise could lead to weight gain.”

And, again, for perspective:

Some research has found that the obese already “exercise” more than most of the rest of us.

But! Gentle exercise for 30 minutes – just 30 minutes – works

A recent Danish study shows physical activity can indeed help shrink your person, so long as it’s around a half-hour a day, no more. Did you hear that? Thirty minutes… NO MORE!

I like this argument put forward by the New York Times’ Gretchen Reynolds:

Humans are born to stroll.

She advocates exercising 20 minutes a day.

But! You have to stick to it

A 2012 study from the University of Wyoming and a related study published in December  found that after three months of exercise, the volunteers consumed fewer calories throughout the day when they had the high-calorie shake than the lower-calorie one. Exercise “improves the body’s ability to judge the amount of calories consumed and to adjust for that afterward,” says the chick who led the study.

Longevity counts. You need to stick with the program for several months to truly fine-tune appetite control. Or stick to it for good.

Try short and intense stuff, too

This study shows short, intense workouts are best – for fat loss, increasing aerobic capacity, and reducing risk for cardiovascular disease.

This study shows that walking briskly for 10 minutes, 3 times a day was best for your health (better than one 30-minute stint).

This one shows two minutes of intense sprinting will boost metabolism over the next day just as much as a longer aerobic jaunt.

Over-exercising ages us and makes us sick

Overtraining has been shown to affect blood levels of important neurotransmitters such as glutamine, dopamine and 5-HTP, which can lead to feelings of depression and chronic fatigue.

And is problematic for autoimmune disease

The stress caused by intense, excessive exercise can negatively affect the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, and can lead to hypothyroidism. Hello, my experience! It also taxes the immune system: research has shown that it causes cellular damage which leads to hyper-activation of the immune system, including changes in natural killer cell activity, thus leading to the development of autoimmune conditions.

The best way to exercise?

To my mind, this is what works.

* Do it every day: Not 3-4 times a week. Every day. Otherwise you fatigue your decision muscle working out which days to skip.

* But keep it short and sweet: Achievable.

* Mix it up: To my mind, this is how our bodies are programmed to move. When we were cave people, which is when our bodies evolved to what they are today, one day we’d wander for hours looking for berries, the next we’re being chased by a tiger.

Me, I do something every day, even on thyroidy days and days when I’ve had no sleep. I just scale it back if I’m feeling crap.

I mix it up, pending weather and time constraints:

* Power yoga (heated, Vinyasa style): 1-2 times/week; 60 minutes.

* Swimming (walk to local seawater pool, 18 laps, walk home): 1-2 times/week; 30 minutes total.

* Weights (I have a home routine; I revert to this on days when it’s raining or I’m short on time. You can view a video of it here.): 1-2 times a week; 20 minutes

* Bush jogs (I head bush on weekends and explore beautiful bush walks in the region. It’s my sanity check after a frenetic week. It often turns into a jog, such is my energised joy with being bush): once a week/fortnight; 1-3 hours.

* Surfing: once a week/fortnight; 40 minutes.

* Jog/stair running (there’s a set of stairs near my house – I do a few laps of these or I do a jog around some parks near my place, integrating some hill climbs): 1-2 times/week; 25 minutes.

* Plus incidental exercise (I walk to appointments, ride to friend’s houses…I rarely drive when I’m in Sydney).

* To this end, just tie on your shoes and get out of the house. Don’t muck about with equipment and perfect parks. Just walk or jog. Swim at a nearby pool. Do a yoga class that’s on your way to the supermarket.

* Make it a routine. And, yes, a morning routine is best. Then it’s done. You’re feeling good. It’s a pivot point for your day. It sets the tone.

Me, I exercise in the morning.

I get up, drink water, attend to ablutions and am out the door within 15 minutes of rising. No emails. No putting on a load of washing.

I carry only a key – down my bra or in a small pocket in my shorts. Equipment just bogs you down and acts as a disincentive (“Where’s my water bottle?! Oh, darn, look, now I don’t have time to go for a jog”).

I keep my exercise kit – shoes, bra, shorts, togs, goggles – together in one pile in my laundry. I have only two – and only two – exercise outfits. Simple, no pfaffing.

I eliminate stages. That is, I don’t jog in a park I must first drive to. It creates a barrier, or disincentive, to just getting out the door and doing it.

I don’t really do classes. Again, they create barriers to just getting out of the house. That said, I have three yoga classes I like in an area I must travel to. However, I incorporate my grocery and chore shopping into the schlep, which negates the disincentive!


* Do it to clear your skin: That is, exercise to get fresh air, get a clear head, a lovely glow etc. – stuff that can make you feel better now. A bunch of psychologists have found that when you force yourself to exercise for future health, weight loss or body image as motivators it doesn’t work. The results are too slow, if there are any, and so we get dispirited. Doing it to get happy and feel good today does. I’ve written about this before.

* When all else fails, just walk.

Me, I’ll often do a 20 minute walk in the afternoon if I’ve had to skip exercise in the morning, for some reason.

I keep it simple – I walk around the neighbourhood and just get calm and clear.

I turn it into a flanerie.

And I love this FREE iPhone app – Moves. It counts your steps for you.

I’ll often clock up 10km in a day without realising it.

I’ve written this very looooong post because I keep getting asked about the topic. Also, I’m in a really good spot with my exercise routine and my body and health is responding really well to it, so I wanted to share what I feel works, and what works for countless experts I’ve chatted to over the years.

What are your thoughts??


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