If I hear one more time that “If I can just get back to the gym, I’ll start to lose weight”, I think I’ll scream. Ok that sounds pretty dramatic but here is the deal, I work with patients every day who are concerned about their weight and more importantly their health and there is an overwhelming assumption that more exercise is the answer. But here is the dirty truth, as people age “more exercise” or relying on exercise alone to satisfy your goal for weight loss will most likely result in little to no change in the scale. Why? Because food matters and trumps exercise as we get older. I see it clinically and personally.
I’ve struggled with weight my entire life. I gain it easily and lose it painfully. I was overweight as a child and not until I grew into my adolescent body did I finally feel more comfortable in my own skin. I was very active, played sports and grew into young adulthood with a satiation for daily exercise and fitness. Its what became to define me as I participated in running clubs and distance running events and ultimately it allowed me to maintain my waist line despite the normal life of a twenty and thirty- year-old of eating poorly and probably drinking too much. My activity defined a “healthy life”.
Fast forward and now in my 50’s, while my knees don’t tolerate the constant beating on pavement, I continue to engage in a variety of exercise and activity. It still defines part of my personality but it doesn’t serve me the same way in did over a decade ago. It soothes my stress, the endorphins brighten my mood, and my heart is thankful for the intermittent demand. However, my waist line could care less.
My personal and clinical observations are supported by a 2012 study in the journal Obesity which evaluated 439 post-menopause women with an average age of fifty-eight for the effect of dietary intervention, exercise, or combined therapy for weight loss over one year. The results indicated that women who followed dietary changes alone lost 8% of their body weight, those who exercised alone lost 2%, and the those that did both lost 10.8% of their original weight. In other words, doing both seems to work the best but we can’t just rely on the mantra of more exercise to get us where we want to be.
As a physician, I concur that nutrition is key. We are surrounded for every reason to eat poorly and look to exercise first. Our busy lives often demand the flavors of convenience including fast food, highly processed carbohydrates and sugar. We often look to others as what is “normal”. We unknowingly watch our friends and family partake in poor eating and we establish this as something we should be doing. When their diet is worse than ours, we often think we are eating well, as we consume the next organic, gluten free muffin while celebrating the notification on our fitness device that we reached our step goal for the day.
Let’s get off the treadmill and rethink the steps for achieving your weight loss goals and ultimately improving our health. There are many approaches and not one is the “right” one. In my opinion, the first step is to know what we are eating, not just assume we know. I encourage my patients to track their food for a week or so to get a better assessment of what needs to change. This exercise does two things, it gives us more concrete ways to change and it holds us accountable to our intake.
Once we have established our individual baseline, we can create new goals using balanced, nutritious foods and use tools like I described a previous post of Levers of Weight Loss, to shift the nutritional balance in favor of weight loss.
So, stop blaming a lack of exercise as your reason for stubborn weight loss and get to real solution, your diet. Then, once on track, sprinkle your exercise back in. Your heart will love it.