Are You Exercising But Not Losing Weight?

women frustrated with the bathroom scale

How many times have you tried to lose weight through diet and exercise, only to have it end in bitter disappointment? You exercise regularly (for several months or years) and consume what you perceive to be a sound diet but the scale refuses to budge. Wait, it gets worse.  Maybe you’ve even been a rockstar in the gym. You’ve become significantly stronger, your muscles feel tighter and your overall fitness is better.  While you’re happy about this, you can’t help but be dumbfounded by the lack of  fat loss. You think you’re eating sensibly right? What could be going wrong? Maybe you’re just meant to be fat.

So, now you’ve given in and rationalized your failure. You’ve spent a countless amount of time, money and energy  for a new body, and all you have to show for your sacrifice is maybe a few pounds of fat loss in a year? I don’t care how you rationalize it, this is unacceptable; and as it turns out – completely fixable.

Here’s a fact: Exercise ALONE doesn’t really work all that well for losing weight.  Many recent studies confirm this to be true.  

Nothing happens by chance and daily exercise doesn’t guarantee you weight loss.  Even eating nutritious food can deliver sub-par results if you eat too much of it.  Although diet and exercise are the foundation of any weight loss effort, there are other factors that may be impeding your progress.

1. Focusing on outcomes, not actions

It’s likely that you’ve become fixated on the long term goal of losing a certain amount of weight by a particular deadline. While setting long term goals is an important preliminary process to any weight loss effort, it’s likely you haven’t looked at the short term.

By breaking your long term goals into smaller short term (weekly and monthly) goals you can set the stage for regular “check-ups” to map your progress.  Short term goals are simply the roads you take to reach the final destination.  Basically, you’ll set weekly or bi-weekly deadlines of how much you think you can lose, but focusing more on the actions you take and less on the outcome.  Actions that will direct you closer to your short term goals, and eventually your long term weight loss deadline.

These actions might include going for a 30 minute walk, riding your bike to work, drinking 8 cups of water or maybe eating less at each meal.  Whatever you choose for your daily actions, track them and build on them. This way you almost forget about the scale and achieve success in other ways, which can be very motivating. Being accountable to your daily actions is the missing part in most weight loss programs. Don’t get me wrong, results are important but when you focus only on what you get out of it, you forget what you need to put into it.

2. Doing too much, too soon.

If you’ve started exercising 6 days a week and extensively restricting your calories, you’re setting yourself up for an early plateau and a lot of frustration.  Always start slowly and build up over time as your body becomes conditioned and adapts to the new program. Not only is this approach much safer, it is the only method that works.  If you jump right in doing the maximum amount of exercise and restricting the maximum amount of calories, what will you do in 2 or 3 weeks when things stop working?  You can’t add or restrict further so you’re stuck.

If you give your body time, you’ll be ensured long term adherence and have resources available for increasing the demands of the program to keep you moving forward.

3. Adaptive Thermogenesis

There is an inevitable decrease in a person’s caloric (energy) expenditure while losing weight. Over time, the impact of restrictive dieting will lead to a point where it seems like weight loss is halted.  Many studies now show that this reduced expenditure is a result of the body adaptive response to thermogenesis (the process of heat production).  In other words, you will burn less calories as you get leaner and the longer you diet.

To overcome adaptation, you should ensure that you’re always burning more and/or  further restricting your intake, at least until a certain point.  This takes constant vigilance and attention to detail.  I believe this is a major reason people plateau in weight loss.

4. Caloric Compensation

We all know that exercise burns calories, but when the body loses something, it tends to want to replenish it.  This is why your appetite can be elevated for several hours following an intense workout.  Ultimately, your ravenous hunger will lead you to consume more calories than normal, negating the calories spent exercising. I refer to this as caloric compensation.

Even if you think your willpower is superior, and that you won’t surrender to the hunger,  it will weaken as your diet continues.  Everyone starts a diet with great focus and self-control, but, as you know, it inevitably fades over time.  Exercise not only depletes your body but, also your brain’s ability to maintain self control.  From an evolutionary standpoint, humans are hard-wired for compensation.

What’s worse is that many of us will indulge, not only because we’re hungry, but as a reward for the effort spent sweating in the gym.  When you start rewarding yourself with food, you’re not going to continue to lose weight.

5. Activity Compensation

Just  as your brain has a built in caloric compensation, it also has one for activity levels as well.  After a grueling workout, it is typical for many people to spend the remaining hours of the days in sedentary form. You’ve just worked out and now it’s time to relax, right?  The truth is that it quite possible to burn 500 calories in your workout and compensate for the loss by burning 500 calories less by failing to move the rest of the day.  If you reward exercise with sedentary activity, much of the caloric expenditure will be lost.  The solution is to adopt an active lifestyle with regular walks, hikes, playing with your kids, riding a bike or picking up a sport.

So why bother exercising if it won’t necessarily expedite my weight loss?

Because you care about your health and disease prevention.  As I often tell my clients, what you do in the gym is done to improve your fitness.  Fitness markers such as strength, endurance, flexibility and stamina can be tracked by you or a trainer. Your blood profile will demonstrate your fitness  improvements at a cellular level.  But you can’t measure weight loss from exercise.

Although exercise is correlated with weight loss, it doesn’t directly cause it.  It can certainly be beneficial to your results but is not the major factor. This is why “fat loss” workouts are such a ridiculous idea.  You don’t workout to burn fat, you make sure you’ve managed all lifestyle factors to ensure you’re always in a caloric deficit. This is the ONLY proven method for weight loss.

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Craig Simms
Craig Simms is a personal trainer and weight loss coach in Vancouver, B.C. Craig has been a fitness leader for over 11 years and has amassed over 15,000 hours of personal training experience in that span. He specializes in personalized weight management programs.
Craig Simms
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