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Exercise and Weight Loss

The Time Magazine article that ran last week was food for thought for people who exercise regularly. Let’s face it, many of us who work out aren’t doing so to boost mood, enhance mental skills, prevent Alzheimer’s disease, or reduce heart attack risk–all of which exercise does–but rather to lose weight.

A lot of new research shows you really don’t lose much weight with daily vigorous exercise alone. Much weight? You may not lose an ounce.

I’ve been hearing this frustration from patients for years. Unlike most medical practices, I have a bevy of health club regulars, and the single most common phrase I hear is a variation of “I’m in the health club every day and I can’t shed a pound.”

Well, that goes for me, too.

I’ve been a regular at the DePaul Fitness Center since it opened a decade ago and now weigh a couple pounds more. I don’t even bother to weigh myself anymore, figuring life has enough disappointments ahead already.

The mechanism of this physiologic injustice, you will learn in the Time piece, is called compensatory eating. And of this I am definitely guilty. Simple enough: we burn X calories while exercising and reward ourselves with Y calories afterward. If X anywhere near equals Y, don’t expect to drop any weight. I occasionally reward myself with a slightly larger breakfast, even as the health club perspiration is drying off. I may even sometimes add a bag of “baked” potato chips to my lunch, actually thinking, “Oh, you exercised this morning—it’s okay.”

Once we’ve finished a workout, many of us feel psychologically entitled to be slothful for the rest of the day. Picture yourself adding another scoop of pasta to your plate, sliding into your comfy chair, thumbing your remote, and thinking, “Am I ever glad I had such a good workout today.”

And you’re still wondering why you haven’t lost weight for your exercise efforts?

According to exercise physiologists, you’ll get quite a decent calorie-burning effect by being physically active throughout your day: by climbing stairs, walking for grocery shopping, maybe even getting rid of your car altogether.

But exercise for weight loss? A real disappointment without its complementary equivalent. To lose weight, to shed pounds, to reduce your clothing size, you have got to take in fewer calories.

And everyone hates to hear that.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD

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