When I first conceived of this post, I thought I was going to find a bunch of research about how exercise doesn’t work when it comes to weight loss, that whole “You can’t outrun a bad diet” thing. I didn’t. I didn’t find much research on the efficacy of exercise in weight loss at all. (I did, however, find tons of research on different weight loss drugs … insert eyeroll emoji here.) Most research I did find (on exercise, weight loss, and arthritis, for example) assumes or states outright that exercise can indeed affect weight loss. That said, this research refers to the immediacy of exercise and weight loss, not to the maintenance of lost weight. The research I’ve found indicates that as many as 95% and as few as 50% regain their lost weight within 5 years.
Some researchers believe that those who develop strong exercise habits are more likely to keep the weight off, perhaps because of “psycho-social predictors on controlled eating rather than energy expenditure.” That means that , the influence exercise has on your daily life is what tends to make the difference in weight-loss maintenance, rather than the calories burned from exercise itself. Are you the type of person who runs three miles, feels like a “healthy person,” and goes home to eat a salad? Then those psychosocial predictors might just work for you! If you’re the type of person who runs three times, feels like an “elite athlete,” and houses an entire pizza, those factors might not be enough to keep you at your weight loss goal.
So, even if exercise might help you lose weight, I’m making the radical suggestion that… wait for it... you still shouldn’t exercise with the express purpose of losing weight. Here’s why:
It puts the focus on what your body looks like instead of what your body can do. Fuck the patriarchy, guys. Seriously. I (and most of you) grew up within a system that stigmatizes outspoken women as bitches, calls powerful women emasculating, and would really prefer women sit quietly, pop out babies, and be pretty at all times. Women are expected to raise children, work full time, clean the house, and still make time to bake bread from scratch. Finding the fortitude to stop giving a shit about what you look like and instead give a shit about whether you can carry your groceries up the four flights to your apartment takes just a little bit of power away from the patriarchy and gives it to you instead.
It can lead to an unhealthy relationship to exercise. If you exercise with the express intention of losing weight, it’s easy to go too hard, too fast, or to do too much. It’s easy to become an over-exerciser or to develop an unhealthy relationship to exercise when you use exercise as a punishment rather than as a joyous expression of what your body can do. To think, “Oh god, I ate a brownie so now I have to run a mile!” That’s some bullshit. Food isn't inherently bad and you're not bad for eating it. To think, "Oh god..." burdens both your joy of eating and exercising with the guilt of being a brownie-loving human. That is not a sustainable (or fun) cycle.
You might hit your goal and stop exercising. If you’re only exercising to lose weight and you’ve lost all the weight you want to lose, what happens to your motivation? Do you stop exercising? Do you start skipping the gym on nights that you’re tired, which is 6 nights out of 7? If your sole motivation is weight loss, what will keep you going to the gym?
You might not hit your goal and stop exercising. Conversely, if you are only using exercise to lose weight and you’re not losing weight, what’s going to keep you exercising? Why bother when it’s clearly not working?!?!? An all or nothing attitude towards fitness leaves you with nothing when it's not doing it all. Exercise might not be the means to the weight-loss end, but it brings so many other benefits to your life.
What are they, you ask? How about improving your cardiovascular fitness which will keep your heart healthier for longer? How about building muscle and getting strong so that you can both walk those groceries up the stairs AND improve your bone density? How about relieving stress and improving your mood, and your sleep, and your resilience? How about being able to bench press your friends for fun and profit? [insert video ]] All of these are things that can be achieved directly from exercise, even if you don’t lose weight.
Ultimately, exercise is greater than weight loss. Whether or not you want to lose weight, whether or not you want to be strong, whether or not you want to run a marathon or try taekwondo or do a perfect push up — exercise is part of living a healthy life. Whatever your goals, or even if you have no goals, you should exercise.