Did you try upping your exercise only to find that you didn’t lose weight and maybe you even gained a pound or two (…and it wasn’t muscle)? If so, you’re not alone.
In fact, several studies show that exercise alone is not a good way to lose weight for most overweight people. And unless you’re ready to really workout intensely to experience a greater boost in metabolism and calories burned, chances are your workouts will only burn a modest amount of calories that you’ll compensate for with your diet (read: eat more).
Just this week, the NY Times covered this complicated area of exercise and metabolism, hunger hormones and body composition. Based on the current research, it appears that the way exercise impacts our physiology varies from person-to-person. Men and women have different responses as do overweight versus normal weight and trained and untrained individuals. The intensity, duration and type of exercise also make a big difference on what you’ll see on the scale or in the mirror. Unless you’re going to really up the intensity of your workouts or make them at least 60+ minutes of moderate-intensity, you’re not going to burn off a significant amount of calories so it won’t really help you lose much weight.
In addition, for many, exercise actually revs up appetite more than one’s metabolism, which may lead to weight gains. One study of marathoners found that a significant portion of those in a marathon endurance training program even gained weight due to the increased energy intake. What’s worse is that women are more likely to be the ones who increase exercise to find the scale just won’t budge.
Bottom line: If you want to lose weight and get defined, diet is more important than exercise. But don’t use that as an excuse not to exercise. Daily exercise strengthens our heart and other muscles, maintains healthy bones, improves mood and self-esteem, and makes it easier to keep weight off.
There are many proposed theories on why women in endurance training regimens often have a hard time losing weight. A few reasons include increased appetite, reward syndrome, increased muscle efficiency so that our bodies burn fewer calories as well as hormonal difference in how women process carbohydrates. Some experts contend that some weight gain doesn’t necessarily mean that body fat is increasing. Weight gain among athletes can also be linked to changes like increases in blood and water content, increased muscle mass and connective tissue.
Here’s advice from sports RDs on how to better balance your diet with endurance training. (These tips were specifically to help marathoners not gain weight but apply to anyone who’s exercising to improve their body composition.)
Diet Matters. You cannot eat whatever, whenever just because you’re running a marathon or Ironman. Eat more on days when you have big training days and eat less on the days when you aren’t training. Try to manage your hunger with healthy carbohydrate choices like fresh fruits, whole grains, veggies and nonfat or low-fat dairy products. Athletes who are lean tend to better match their calorie intake to their output.
Eat Real Food. Rather than eating a “recovery” meal followed later by another meal, plan your training so that you consume a normally scheduled balanced meal after your long runs. By doing so, you won’t have to eat two meals or a special post-workout meal followed by your “regular” meal. This simple move can save you 400-500 calories.
A well-timed post-workout meal should be eaten within an hour or so of finishing your training. Too many newbie athletes believe they need a post-workout meal then another “regular” meal a few hours later, and they wind up over-consuming calories, explains James Stevens, MS, RD.
Diet at night. According to Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, author of Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions, “Fuel by day and eat less at night.” This way you’ll have the energy they need to run and refuel and eating more during the day will curb your nighttime appetite. Going to bed with a mild hunger means you likely will be losing weight at night, when you are sleeping; this is preferable to losing weight when you are trying to train.
Stop wishful thinking. “Watch out for the ‘mind games’ that go on in your head, like, ‘I just ran 18 miles, so I can eat and drink whatever I want this weekend.’ This gets a lot of marathoners into trouble,” says Kelly Devine, MS, RD, LDN.
Don’t overdo sports nutrition products. Many athletes do not realize that their training may not warrant a significant increase in calories every day of the week. Training for a marathon typically includes one long run a week. Making sure that the increase in fuel comes on the appropriate days at the appropriate times is a key factor in eating to support training. You don’t need to have gels, sports drinks bars or blocks every day of the week. Use them when needed and eat real food and drink water at other times, says Heather Mangieri, MS, RD, CSSD.
Define your goal. Is your goal to run a marathon or to lose weight? If you really want to accomplish a marathon, great, just don’t expect to lose weight. If you are running to lose lbs, you’re going to need to focus on more than running to win at losing.