Why Exercise? Forget About Weight Loss

exercise weight lossOne of the unfortunate side effects of living in a dieting, weight-centric culture is that much of the value of eating well and being active gets wrapped up in the question, “Will this help me lose weight?” Our bodies are complex things, and there is never any guarantee that positive inputs (nutritious food, regular movement, adequate sleep, self-care) will lead to weight loss. Does that mean these things have no value? No!

I once had a patient who had signed up for a pretty serious 6-week gym program. When the six weeks were over, she stopped going (and stopped exercising, generally) because, as she told me, “I didn’t lose any weight.”

Flawed Logic

On one hand, there’s a conventional wisdom that food matters more than physical activity when it comes to weight loss. On the other hand, some people still assume that bumping up the exercise will help them drop pounds. There are three flaws with both lines of thinking.

  1. Research shows that, on average, physical activity doesn’t matter much for weight loss, but that research also shows that there are “outliers,” individuals who do lose weight when they exercise more. What we’re now starting to understand is that this difference may be based on genetics.
  2. Food and physical are often coupled in a way they shouldn’t be when weight loss is the goal. This may lead people to eat more when they exercise more (and not necessarily because their food needs truly increased), or push themselves to exercise more because they ate something they “shouldn’t.” I think one of the best things anyone can do is permanently “uncouple” food and movement. They are each their own thing, and contribute to health and well-being (or lack thereof) in their own ways. I mentioned this in a recent Seattle Times column.
  3. Eating nutritious food and engaging regularly in types of movement that we enjoy are valuable in a million ways that have not one little thing to do with body weight. They can increase your energy, help you feel better in your skin, promote improved sleep, make your skin look better, and so on. Never mind that they may reduce your odds of developing health problems in the future.

Why I Stay Physically Active

No matter how busy I am, I fit in some physical activity every day. That might be a brisk walk, it might be yoga, it might be weight lifting. It’s two of those things on most days. I occasionally have an off week where a small amount of walking is all I fit in (like if I’m traveling at a conference that doesn’t lend itself to a lot of walking), but I get back on track ASAP. Why do I make this commitment to consistent physical activity? It’s simple:

  • I want to be strong. I like how it feels when I can lift what I need to lift, and I have no intention of ever becoming a “frail old lady.”
  • I want to have endurance. One of my great joys is sightseeing on foot when I travel. When I go to Paris, I log 10-15 miles each day. While I do derive joy from daily walking, I also consider it training for travel.
  • I want to be flexible. Like many people, I feel a little stiff in the mornings, but I notice how yoga relieves that stiffness in the moment, and lessens my overall level of stiffness and muscle tightness. (Plus, yoga is useful for cultivating mindfulness and reducing stress.)
  • I want to have balance. I’ll admit it, my balance sucks. It’s never been my strong suit, but breaking my ankle 10 years ago really highlighted my deficit. I incorporate movements for balance in yoga (I have a love/hate relationship with tree pose) and in strength training (one-legged deadlifts are one of my favorite.

Alignment with Life Values

All of these benefits of fitness tie into things I really value. I don’t value bench pressing a certain amount of weight, I value what being able to bench press that amount of weight lets me do with ease in my day to day life. I don’t value walking fast for the sake of walking fast, I value that I can sprint for a bus or walk up the hill to Sacre Couer in Paris. I’m not the bendiest person in the world, but I value how yoga makes me feel in the moment, and how it makes me feel better even off the yoga mat (when I’ve gone a week or more with no yoga, I feel the difference!). And when a habit aligns with your deeper values, it’s a habit that’s more likely to stick.

What do you value? Why do you exercise (or not exercise)?