The problem(s) with exercising for “health”

December 13, 2016

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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

We live in a culture that equates exercise with burning calories and weight loss.  Although it is often veiled under the premise of "health" – IMHO health is just another code word for weight loss.  

There are a few problems with this:

  1. Exercise doesn't burn as many calories as you think it does.  And, no, the elliptical or treadmill's calorie counter is not accurate.  Your Fit Bit probably isn't either.   
  2. People who exercise for the purpose of burning calories tend to give themselves "permission" to eat more as a reward for exercising, often resulting in eating more food than they otherwise would have, because they "earned" it. 
  3. Exercise isn't an effective way to induce weight loss.  Studies show that without changing eating habits, weight loss does not tend to occur with exercise alone.  
  4. If your purpose for exercising was to lose weight, you're going to be disappointed and probably give up on it, because it doesn't "work."
  5. Weight loss is not equivalent to health.  

So how about a paradigm shift?  Here are some other reasons to exercise that will actually enhance your life:

  • Exercise boosts mood and energy levels.  Even a quick 5-minute walk or a few stretches can make a big difference in how you feel.  
  • Movement can be fun.  Consider recreational activities like hiking, kayaking, dancing, or jumping on the trampoline.  Remember how much fun you had playing as a kid?  Find some playful ways to exercise as an adult. 
  • Exercise does improve your health – regardless of weight.  There are plenty of benefits to exercise including improved insulin sensitivity, healthy heart and lungs, improved lab values, and decreased inflammation just to name a few.  If you are legitimately wanting to exercise for health, then weight loss doesn't need to be part of that narrative.  You can exercise and receive benefits at any shape or size. 
  • Exercise improves your brain's ability to learn and recall information.  In one study, students who had PE before taking a test did better than those who didn't have PE.  

It is ok to make exercise a priority in your life as part of your commitment to healthful living.  Where our culture steers people wrong is by making exercise a requirement for self-worth.  The fitness industry has become a religion in many regards.  So be mindful of the way that you are viewing and using exercise, because while it has many benefits, it can also be detrimental to your overall wellbeing.  

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