Weight Loss: The Exercise Trap

Read anything about weight loss and you will see something about exercise. It might be referred to as "physical activity", but that's just a codeword. They mean exercise.

Actually, many people have tried exercise and given up on it because it just didn't seem to work for one reason or another. Here are some explanations of why someone might think that exercise ISN'T working, when it IS!


Exercise is activity, movement you might say. People have been moving all their lives, so they know how to do it, right? Well, if you are just talking about "getting some exercise", you might be right. However, if you are talking about exercise for the purpose of losing weight, things change a little.

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At the beginning of a weight loss program, the person has probably been sedentary for some time and has experienced an overall deterioration in the body's ability to deal with, or react favorably to, physical activity. At this point, almost any activity above the normal level becomes "exercise" for this individual. Over time, the body will adjust to the new level of activity and assume a new homeostasis, or overall balance of physical ability, fat, muscle, body weight, and metabolism. It then becomes time to adjust the activity upwards in order to arrive at a new balance. Once an acceptable balance, usually a target weight, has been arrived at, the individual can change from a weight loss program to a weight maintenance program.

Unfortunately, people tend to be a little ignorant on the subject of exercise and sabotage themselves at the start of their weight loss program through several different mechanisms. Beginners usually:

Try to do too much Don't do enough Don't increase the level Do the wrong exercises Have unrealistic expectations Don't understand what exercise is going to do

Some of these items cross lines, so it is difficult to talk about one without talking about another one or two. For example, if someone has unrealistic expectations, they may try to do too much or too little. If they do not understand what exercise is going to do, they may choose the wrong exercises. Most of these problems are directly related to ignorance about exercise. This is why, if you are interested in using exercise as part of a weight loss program, you either do a little studying on the subject, or get yourself a good personal trainer.

Let's briefly talk about the situations above.


This can cause you to fail in many ways. You can strain muscles, make yourself feel sick, or even injure yourself. After a day or two of too much exercise, your body and your brain will be screaming at you to "knock it off!" To be effective for weight loss, exercise should become a regular activity and if you are dreading the next workout, you will eventually find ways to avoid it altogether. You need to start small and build yourself up. This can create a problem also.


As I mentioned above, for the sedentary individual, almost any activity will be classified as "enough exercise" at first. However, the body soon adapts to this small unit of activity and settles in at a new level, usually without really exhibiting much in the way of weight lost.


Once the body has achieved its new level of "fitness" relative to the starting point, it becomes necessary to increase the intensity or duration of the exercise, or both. The person who starts out trying to run a marathon will fail. The person who starts out walking to the mailbox must eventually start walking past the mailbox and down the street, or they too will fail.


Exercises can be divided roughly into three groups. In my high school days (don't ask how long ago) we would talk about strength, endurance, and flexibility. These days you hear things like resistance training, cardiovascular training... and flexibility. As pointed out, at the beginning, almost any movement will qualify for pretty near all three types. As you progress, you will have to separate out each and, for the purpose of overall health, give each its due. However, for weight loss, cardiovascular activities will probably give most people the most weight loss bang for their buck. Be aware that strength training will also benefit weight loss in the long run due to the formation of muscle tissue which can aid in burning calories.


Exercise works, but it generally works from the inside out. While someone who is overweight may experience an initial weight loss, most of what is happening is going to take time. If you want to look in the mirror in a couple of days or step on the scale and see obvious evidence of weight loss, you are bound to be disappointed. You will have to accept the fact that even the most perfectly designed and executed exercise program is probably going to take weeks or even months to produce inspiring results. At the start, you may just have to keep going on faith. However, EXERCISE DOES WORK!


This actually happened to my wife. She was trying to lose weight and began exercising. A few days later, I could tell that she was experiencing benefits. She was more active, perkier, her complexion was glowing, she was walking around the house singing more than usual, and she looked "tighter" to me. One night we were talking, and she was going on and on in an excited way about how much looser her clothes were getting. In fact, they were getting so baggy; she was saying that she would have to go shopping for more. She was in a great mood when I left the room. A few seconds later, I heard her exclaim, "Oh no!" I stepped back into the room and she was crying.

She had stepped on the scale and her weight had GONE UP since the last time she had weighed herself.

Even though I had explained to her what was going to happen, like most people who have tried and tried to lose weight, her immediate reaction was that her exercise program "wasn't working." She felt like another promise had failed her.

We will leave aside the fact that everybody's weight fluctuates from day to day and from hour to hour. If you are checking your weight daily, you are setting yourself up for failure. If you MUST weigh yourself, do it once a month or even once every two months. If you have been eating properly during that time and doing your exercise, increasing it as you achieve each new level of ability, you will have lost at least a few pounds.

What got her, and a lot of other people, is a simple physiological process which was, in a few days, going to work in her favor. When someone who has NOT been exercising begins to exercise, they usually build some lean muscle mass and burn off some fat. Unfortunately, at first, the weight of lean muscle mass that is added is sometimes greater than the amount of fat that is lost. Therefore, someone may find that they are actually GAINING WEIGHT for the first few days or even weeks of their exercise program. In time, if the program is continued, the muscle mass will plateau, and the fat will continue to be burned and the weight will come down.

Remember how my wife was saying that her clothes were looser? That's because she was burning fat and adding lean muscle mass. The lean muscle takes up less space than the fat that has been burned. Even though she had gained weight, her body size was actually smaller... and she was healthier.

If you are going to start a weight loss program, make sure you learn a little bit about exercise and use that in addition to monitoring your nutritional intake.

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