You do not need to exercise to lose weight. Period. Full stop. Unless you are an elite athlete and burning up energy by the boatloads, you can’t exercise away over eating over drinking or that stash of dark chocolate you keep hidden in your desk drawer.
Eat less and move more to lose weight is a big crock of you know what.
Even if Michelle Obama said so.
To lose weight, it’s important to understand that the food you ingest sends messages to your hormones regarding how to partition energy for use now or use later. And that the health of your microbiome determines the nutrition you are able to extract from that food.
There is not one part of your body or your metabolic process that recognizes or counts calories.
Your body doesn’t know a calorie from a paperclip.
If it were possible to lose weight by counting calories in and accelerating calories out through increased exercise, we all would have lost that extra weight years ago.
Food sends information to your hormones, telling them how to manage the incoming energy.
It’s all about short term and long term energy storage.
Food tells your body whether to store energy for use right now or sock it away for long term storage in your fat cells in case of future need. Like in case of starvation or the perception of starvation due to excessive or continuous calorie restriction.
The bacterial richness of your microbiome determines how much nutrition is extracted from the food you eat.
The efficiency of your food messengers and the condition of your microbiome are much more directly linked to weight loss than exercise.
But lest you conclude that I’m not a fan of exercise at all, I want to dispel that notion and explain why.
I believe in the benefits of exercise for all the reasons explained below, just not for weight loss. Which means that if exercise doesn’t fit into your schedule or you hate to sweat, like I do, YOU CAN STILL LOSE WEIGHT AND KEEP IT OFF.
Now, let’s get on with the importance of incorporating exercise into your living your best life plan.
Exercise is important for our sense of well-being, brain and body health.
Let me introduce you to Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She’s famous for her work using insights from psychology and neuroscience to explain practical strategies that support health and well-being.
Here’s how Kelly McGonigal explains the benefits of exercise. Weight loss isn’t one of them.
We’ve all heard that exercise is good for us—how it strengthens our hearts and lungs, and helps us prevent diseases like diabetes. That’s why so many of us like to make New Year’s resolutions to move more, knowing it will make us healthier and live longer.
But many people don’t know about the other important benefits of exercise—how it can help us find happiness, hope, connection, and courage.
Around the world, people who are physically active are happier and more satisfied with their lives. They have a stronger sense of purpose and experience more gratitude, love, and hope. They feel more connected to their communities, and are less likely to suffer from loneliness or become depressed.
These benefits are seen throughout the lifespan, including among those living with serious mental and physical health challenges. That’s true whether their preferred activity is walking, running, swimming, dancing, biking, playing sports, lifting weights, or practicing yoga.
Movement is linked to a wide range of psychological benefits.
It has a powerful and profound effect on the brain.
While exercise may not be the gateway to weight loss, it has many benefits.
The exercise “high” primes you to connect with others.
Although typically described as a runner’s high, an exercise-induced mood boost is not exclusive to running. A similar bliss can be found in any sustained physical activity.
Scientists have long speculated that endorphins are behind the high, but research shows the high is linked to another class of brain chemicals: endocannabinoids (the same chemicals mimicked by cannabis)—what neuroscientists describe as “don’t worry, be happy” chemicals.
Areas of the brain that regulate the stress response, including the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, are rich in receptors for endocannabinoids. When endocannabinoid molecules lock into these receptors, they reduce anxiety and induce a state of contentment. Endocannabinoids also increase dopamine in the brain’s reward system, which further fuels feelings of optimism.
This exercise high also primes us to connect with others, by increasing the pleasure we derive from being around other people, which can strengthen relationships. Many people use exercise as an opportunity to connect with friends or loved ones. Among married couples, when spouses exercise together, both partners report more closeness later that day, including feeling loved and supported.
Another study found that on days when people exercise, they report more positive interactions with friends and family. As one runner said to me, “My family will sometimes send me out running, as they know that I will come back a much better person.”
Exercise can make your brain more sensitive to joy.
When you exercise, you provide a low-dose jolt to the brain’s reward centers—the system of the brain that helps you anticipate pleasure, feel motivated, and maintain hope.
Over time, regular exercise remodels the reward system, leading to higher circulating levels of dopamine and more available dopamine receptors. In this way, exercise can both relieve depression and expand your capacity for joy.
Our brains change as we age, and adults lose up to 13 percent of the dopamine receptors in the reward system with each passing decade. This loss leads to less enjoyment of everyday pleasures, but physical activity can prevent the decline.
Compared to their inactive peers, active older adults have reward systems that more closely resemble those of individuals who are decades younger.
Exercise makes you brave.
Courage is another side effect of physical activity on the brain. At the very same time that a new exercise habit is enhancing the reward system, it also increases neural connections among areas of the brain that calm anxiety. Regular physical activity can also modify the default state of the nervous system so that it becomes more balanced and less prone to fight, flight, or fright.
Sometimes, the movement itself allows us to experience ourselves as brave, as the language we use to describe courage relies on metaphors of the body. We overcome obstacles, break through barriers, and walk through fire. We carry burdens, reach out for help, and lift one another up. This is how we as humans talk about bravery and resilience.
When we are faced with adversity or doubting our own strength, it can help to feel these actions in our bodies. The mind instinctively makes sense out of physical actions. Sometimes we need to climb an actual hill, pull ourselves up, or work together to shoulder a heavy load to know that these traits are a part of us.
Moving with others builds trust and belonging.
In 1912, French sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term collective effervescence to describe the euphoric self-transcendence individuals feel when they move together in ritual, prayer, or work. Moving with others—for example, in group exercise, yoga, or dance classes—is one of the most powerful ways to experience joy.
Psychologists believe the key to producing collective joy is synchrony—moving in the same way, and at the same time, as others—because it triggers a release of endorphins. This is why dancers and rowers who move in sync show an increase in pain tolerance.
But endorphins don’t just make us feel good; they help us bond, too. People sharing an endorphin rush through a collective activity like, trust, and feel closer to one another afterward. It’s a powerful neurobiological mechanism for forming friendships, even with people we don’t know.
Group exercise has managed to capitalize on the social benefits of synchronized movement. For example, the more you get your heart rate up, the closer you feel to the people you move in unison with, and adding music enhances the effect. Breathing in unison can also amplify the feeling of collective joy, as may happen in a yoga class.
We were born with brains able to craft a sense of connection to others that is as visceral as the feedback coming from our own heart, lungs, and muscles. That is an astonishing thing! We humans can go about most of our lives, sensing and feeling ourselves as separate, but through one small action—coming together in movement—we dissolve the boundaries that divide us.
Trying a new activity can transform your self-image.
Every time you move your body, sensory receptors in your muscles, tendons, and joints send information to your brain about what is happening. This is why if you close your eyes and raise one arm, you can feel the shift in position and know where your arm is in space. You don’t have to watch what’s happening; you can sense yourself.
The ability to perceive your body’s movements is called proprioception, and is sometimes referred to as the “sixth sense.” It helps us move through space with ease and skill and plays a surprisingly important role in self-concept—how you think about who you are and how you imagine others see you.
When you participate in any physical activity, your moment-to-moment sense of self is shaped by the qualities of your movement. If you move with grace, your brain perceives the elongation of your limbs and the fluidity of your steps, and realizes, “I am graceful.” When you move with power, your brain encodes the explosive contraction of muscles, senses the speed of the action, and understands, “I am powerful.”
If there is a voice in your head saying, “You’re too old, too awkward, too big, too broken, too weak,” sensations from movement can provide a compelling counterargument.
Physical accomplishments change how you think about yourself and what you are capable of, and the effect should not be underestimated.
We were born to move.
Exercise has many positive effects on our psychological and social well-being. So, consider starting the new year by adding more movement to your life.
Not out of guilt and worry that you have to exercise like a mad demon to work off all those extra pounds cause that’s not happening. But because you’ll feel better, be happier, and have better social relationships because of it. Who could possibly object to that outcome?
Just don’t expect working out consistently 3 or 4 times a week for an hour to accelerate weight loss. That expectation can only lead to disappointment.
It’s what you eat, the health of your microbiome and even when you eat that are the most consequential part of the weight loss equation.
I’d love the opportunity to tell you all about it.
Let’s work together on your personalized weight loss equation and plan.
Schedule your free Strategy Call right here so we can devote some time to unpacking what’s possible.
Isn’t it about time to take the first steps in the new year toward creating a plan that really will work for you long term?