Don't Workout to Lose Weight ( it to be more awesome!)

Don’t Workout to Lose Weight

Physical activity is a poor way to lose weight…but you should do it anyways!

In one more week it’s New Year’s - are you planning on losing weight in 2018?  If you are planning to lose the weight you have gained over the holidays (which is only about 1lb on average), it shouldn’t be hard because your body will actually work to defend your lighter weight from 1 month ago, and you may lose your holiday weight without even trying. 

But what if you are planning to lose a significant amount of weight in the New Year?  That is much more challenging, and probably not helpful or necessary for you – this was discussed in last month’s newsletter.  Not only will your body fight you every step of the way, there is very little evidence that weight loss is what most people need.   What people need to do is take care of themselves, stay active, avoid overeating, sleep, keep stress in check, and be mindful of whether they are gaining weight.  Easier said than done!

Let’s assume that you are one of the few people who would benefit from embarking on a weight loss program: you have medical reasons for weight loss; you are sufficiently motivated; you have put aside enough time and resources; and you are committed to taking an holistic approach to weight loss that attempts to address your root drivers of weight gain.  Should you start working out as part of this process?  Should you buy a gym membership in the New Year?  What role does physical activity play in both weight loss and weight maintenance, and what role should your local gym or exercise professional play in your efforts? 

Physical Activity only Leads to Weight Loss with High Volumes

Exercise doesn’t lead to weight loss in most individuals until they reach high levels of caloric output per week, most people would need to exercise at moderate to vigorous intensities for 60 minutes per day or more.  For most people this is unrealistic, but even if it were realistic, there are several reasons why this is still a bad idea:

-       Increasing your physical activity levels too quickly can lead to injury.  Moreover, excess body weight can lead to more stress on your joints - you are better off to decrease your weight first, then slowly increase your physical activity levels over time.

-       Weight gain will immediately occur once you stop exercising at these high volumes.

-       For a rare portion of the population, physical activity might have been the only missing portion of their weight management program, and for them, this approach could be effective.  But for most, increasing physical activity will only serve to mask the other underlying drivers of weight gain.  A program the treats your causes of weight gain would be more effective long term.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t be exercising to manage your weight – exercise is an important part of your health, and of effective weight management, but it doesn’t seem to aid significantly in losing weight. 

Weight Loss May Not Improve Your Health?  Is that possible?

Yes, it is possible to lose to weight and not experience improvements in health.  There is actually limited evidence that weight loss alone leads to improvements in health and positive health outcomes in overweight and obese patients.   However, the efforts to lose weight – becoming more physically active, improving diet, managing stress, etc – these things seem to improve health regardless of whether an individual loses weight.

So the bad news is that weight loss is hard.  But the good news is that improvements in health can come without any weight loss, or with very modest amounts of weight loss that are the result of increased physical activity and changes in diet and other lifestyle habits.  Changes in fitness, increases in muscle and decreases in fat mass, improved sleep, better moods, having better posture, feeling more confident – these are all benefits of having a healthier and more active lifestyle, as opposed to focusing on weight loss.  Yes, “Don’t Workout to Lose Weight” is just my sad way of getting attention, and could better be stated as “Forget Weight Loss – Workout to be More Awesome”.  The desire to lose weight is so strong and culturally ingrained, that no matter how many times some people hear about the real health benefits of better lifestyles, their focus always come back to the numbers on the scale.   Lets talk about that next month!

Physical Activity Works … for Prevention of Weight Gain

Currently, societal efforts to prevent weight gain are under emphasized, and the focus on weight loss is over emphasized.  The bad news of physical activity is that it is not helpful for weight loss, but the good news is that it is probably very helpful in the prevention of weight gain.  Moreover, these effects can happen at lower doses, 20-60 minutes per day, and it seems that caloric expense is not the only mechanism for these effects - its not ‘all about the calories’.  The improvements in well being, stress management, mental health, and social health all seem to be important benefits of physical activity’s weight management effects.  So, while working out might not shed unwanted pounds, it can certainly help you from putting them on, not to mention it promotes health and makes your life better! 

What Types of Physical Activity are Best for Weight Management?

Higher intensities of physical activities are better for weight management for 2 reasons:

1 – They burn more calories per minute of physical activity.

2 – They promote muscular strength and seem to affect the way the body deposits fat and controls its blood sugars.   This is why there is so much recent emphasis on strength training and HIIT (high intensity interval training), but the way that this evidence is being used to design exercise programs is probably causing more harm that good at times, leading to injury.  I will cover this in future articles, but for now, take your time in adding intensity to your workouts and stay away from heavy weights, they are likely not necessary.  

Use a heart rate monitor to learn which exercises lead to more caloric expenditure and higher intensities.   You don’t have to use it all of the time, it’s a great learning tool to see what happens metabolically when you are “Healthing Out”.  We offer this option for all HealthOut workouts for individuals who are interested in promoting the metabolic effects of exercise. 

Flexibility exercises like stretching, yoga or HealthOut’s Mobilize workouts usually have lower levels of caloric ‘burn’ per exercise session.  However, they likely play a roll in weight management by preventing injury, promoting better movement technique, and provide a calming recovery type of exercise for those who have trouble ‘dialing back’ their stress levels during the week.

Choose exercises that utilize large muscle groups, such as the legs, gluts and torso.  This is why I have chosen the split squat and squat as the first tutorials to post on the HealthOut Blog – so you can learn proper form with these activities and get your body ready first, before beginning to do more intense versions of these movements with resistance or utilize other muscle groups.  Adding light resistance to these movements is the next step, and also you can perform them with resistance in the upper body as well to increase the amount of work you are doing per unit of time.   Also, utilize full body exercises - the simple push up is a great example of a full body strength activity that will promote more caloric expenditure than laying on a bench doing to bench press for instance.

Don’t underestimate the effects of good old-fashioned low intensity ‘cardio’ workouts.  Hopping on the treadmill or bike and watching the news, going for a long walk at the end of the day or on the weekend – these activities preferentially target the aspects of your metabolism that burn fat, and you can perform much higher volumes of activity at these intensities.

Don’t buy a gym Membership this Year!

Fitness businesses are ready to offer you discounted memberships in the New Year, and position their businesses as an answer to your weight loss desires.  After reading the messages above, you now understand that these are likely false claims.   Often, these memberships are not in your best interests, and the reason they are so cheap is because you probably won’t use it.  Stop the insanity!  Don’t buy one unless you know for sure you will use it, and stick to ones that go month to month, none of these long-term commitments.  

Your gym membership is only a small part of your weight management program, and the average gym should not be playing a role in managing your weight – make sure you and whatever health professionals you choose are the ones making the important decisions.  Let the gym organize your workouts for you and leave it at that.  Choose health professionals that have training and experience in obesity management or in the management of chronic disease. 

Keep in mind that most people that effectively prevent weight gain long term, do it without the gym: for instance through walking or other lifestyle physical activity; limiting caloric intake long term; avoiding sedentary positions; planning ahead; decreasing screen time; managing stress; getting support from others; thinking about life differently; or weighing themselves regularly and problem solving when their weight begins to increase.   The gym can be a great place to get active, but you should never feel like you have to do it to me healthy.

What Role can “the Gym” play in Weight Management?

A time saver

Provided your fitness center is close by, it can be a great place to make the most of the time you invest in your fitness.  At HealthOut, you come in and everything is laid out for you, you can get strait to work on your fitness, no fiddling around.  Every second you spend with us is geared toward getting the most health benefits in the shortest period of time. 

A Great ‘Back Up’

When the weather doesn’t permit your preferred outdoor activity from happening outdoors, the gym can be your “Plan B’.

Special Equipment

Sometimes the equipment in a gym can be helpful to keep you active in ways you wouldn’t normally be active.  For instance, if you have injured your knee, you can use equipment at the gym to stay active with your upper body and prevent weight gain while injured.

Tailored Physical Activity

A good gym has staff that understand the health related aspects of fitness, and how to prescribe them to you in the right quantities, types, frequencies, intensities, etc., given your goal and history. If your goal is weight management, a good gym will progress your intensities from low to more intense, but it will do so at a pace that is appropriate for you so that you get the results you want without getting hurt on the way.  This is easier said than done, and is one of the largest reasons I started HealthOut.

Provide Objective Feedback

Supervised exercise is almost always better than unsupervised, because you get an outside eye that can help you pick on whether you are doing exercises properly and in a way that matches your goals.  Supervision from the right person can help you learn to do movements safer and more efficiently.  If your goal is to burn more calories and improve strength, then an outside eye can help alter your form and the loads you are using so that you work harder, but also stay safe.

Ask Questions

A good trainer asks questions, listens, and reflects these answers back to their clients from time to time.  This process often helps to clarify your own goals and expectations, as well as helps to keep you accountable and on track over time.

Remind you of the Benefits of “Healthing Out”

Simply being reminded of why you are making all of these efforts to be healthier is immensely powerful.  I regularly ask my patients to make lists of their reasons to be healthy, and they almost always start making healthier decisions for the few weeks following such an exercise.


So the Gym is Good?  Make up your Mind Dr. O!

If it seems that I am being contrarian and adversarial, it is only to get your attention and to get people thinking about the current state of the fitness industry.  I think it has so much potential to do good, and yet it is swimming with unhealthy messages and unprofessional business practices. I think that if HealthOut is going to “Bring Health Back to Fitness”, and make a difference, it needs to be a bit ‘cheeky’ to begin with.  Thanks for reading and stay tuned for next Month!

      -  Dr. Ryan Oughtred, ND