Exercise, but not for the Calorie Burn

The Art of Addition

In April, the big focus was “trigger foods.” I am a huge advocate of knowing yourself, and using what you know to set yourself up for success. This often includes reducing and eliminating foods and eating triggers. However, in the process of optimizing your eating environment, becoming more informed about nutrition, and using smart portion control strategies, it can be easy to get caught in a trap of less… and less… and less… and less.

But health and wellness, as a pursuit, is meant to make your world bigger, not smaller. If you feel your world shrinking, it’s time to redefine what fitness means to you, and how you can re-shape your approach to expand your horizons.

To address this, my blog theme for the month of May is “The Art of Addition” – habits and strategies you add into your life, to balance out and replace the routines and/or foods you may be taking away. It’s incredibly important that your strategies for healthy living line up with your vision for your life. Practicing the art of addition empowers you to make choices about which routines and habits mean the most to you, and are most in alignment with your values. 

Today, we’re going to focus exercise – a vital, but extremely misunderstood, healthy living strategy.

Is a Six-Pack Really Made in the Kitchen?

When you’re focusing on weight loss, it is true that nutrition will make the most significant difference in your overall weight. Exercise can only play a supporting role when it comes to calorie balance. As I will explore further on the blog in the upcoming months, it is notoriously difficult to “outrun” a bad diet. For example, this study measures the weight loss effects of various combinations of exercise and nutrition – and the conclusion is that both resistance training and aerobic exercise must be combined with calorie reduction strategies to make clinically significant weight loss “possible.”

However, this doesn’t mean you should give up on exercise when you are trying to lose weight. Being active provides a long list of benefits other than weight loss, including:

Exercise is a complex physical process – a regular habit at sufficient intensity changes your body chemistry on a cellular and molecular level. Even if you don’t lose weight from exercise alone, your health will be improved – a higher level of cardiovascular fitness is correlated with lower disease risk, even at higher BMI’s. In other words, even though aiming for both fitness and an optimal weight yields the greatest benefits, exercise alone yields tremendous health rewards and shouldn’t be neglected.

When you get too short-sighted, using the scale as your only measure of success, you miss out on the benefits of regular, vigorous exercise. 

But, if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, you know that’s not where this post is stopping.

My secret is that exercise confers a lot more magic than can be measured by a blood test or MRI. 

The Alchemical Effect of Exercise

In a blog post from last summer, I describe the phenomenon of “catalytic habits” – small routines that spark big transformation. 

Catalytic habits are usually small details, not giant commitments. However, they’re the hinges on which the rest of your day (and your mindset) turns.

Exercise has an incalculable effect on mindset. When we debate whether exercise or nutrition is better for weight loss and health, we lose perspective on the bigger miracle of developing a regular fitness habit.

The act of sticking to a consistent exercise routine, whatever it is, is an almost alchemical process. 

I have observed many of my clients become consistent with exercise in ways that they never imagined possible. This consistency produces a meaningful feeling of self-efficacy – the sense of, “I can do it!” – which leads to a cascade of other positive changes.

The feeling of being capable, strong, and powerful – while more difficult to measure than blood lipids – can make all the difference in helping someone adhere to a consistent routine, which includes smart nutrition strategies, over a long period of time.

In other words, exercise can be an identity-changer, in a way that declining cheesecake just can’t be.

A Giant Asterisk

I hope that, as you’ve been reading this post, you  have been anticipating the absolutely giant, all-important asterisk that I have been mentally appending to the end of each paragraph.

The asterisk is this:

Exercise is tremendously transformational, as long as you do not engineer your habit with a built-in self-destruct button. 

I would estimate that more than half of my clients come to me, either in-person or online, already injured from another, too-intense exercise program that promised athleticism (and weight loss), but only delivered pain.

It is incredibly easy to unconsciously create expectations and routines that set the scene for inevitable burnout or injury. When your routine delivers too much intensity too quickly – or is, in any way, not realistic – exercise loses its alchemical power and becomes something difficult, arduous, and hard to maintain. 

Instead of promoting adherence, poorly-strategized exercise can be the proverbial “last straw” that leads to completely giving up.

The cure?

When you’re just starting out, the key is to create an exercise habit that:

  • Gives you that important boost of self-efficacy and empowerment
  • Is appropriate for your fitness level, but is also…
  • Is sufficiently intense to make a real difference in your fitness, but… 
  • Is – most importantly – something that can realistically be a part of your daily/weekly schedule

Here are my five strategies for creating this in your life, so that you can truly love to enjoy the experience of exercise, as well as its health benefits:

Strategy #1: Lower the bar.

When many people try to get active, they accidentally make their goal too difficult – the weight training routine is too complicated, the spin class is too far away from the house, or the gym isn’t open long enough before work. Instead of focusing on how exercise should be, redefine what exercise can be.

Do literally anything that gets your heart rate up for 30 minutes, whether it’s a power walk, a jog, or an aerobics video in your living room. In my upcoming coaching group, for example, a huge focus is going to be on increasing the number of steps you take per day! It can be that simple.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, when you lower your expectations of yourself (to a sweet spot, not to nothing) your expectations are then easier to meet, which means that you will meet them more often – which ultimately leads to a new habit. Sporadic, all-or-nothing visits to the gym a few times a month are not a habit.

Strategy #2: Do it as often as possible.

Now that you’ve redefined “exercise,” do it every day that you can. Try to do it at the same time each day, so that exercise can become an entrenched part of your daily routine, as predictable as brushing your teeth or eating lunch.

It’s important to note that – even though they don’t qualify themselves as “morning people” – many of my clients find that morning is the only protected time when they can reliably exercise. The exceptions to this rule are few.

Why the focus on daily exercise? What about rest and recovery? If we’re honest with ourselves, exercising “daily” often means – in reality – 4-5 times per week, when you take into account weekends and lapses in routine.

This is important, because for people who have difficulty seeing results from exercise, increasing exercise frequency from a few times a week to five times per week makes an exponential difference in their results. The problem with aiming for three times per week is that it can sometimes end up being only one, when life gets busy.

So if you’re concerned that you’re exercising too much, again, change your expectations for what exercise can be, and alternate your days of higher intensity with days of lower intensity. The change in frequency can be absolutely magical, both for building a habit and for seeing results.

Strategy #3: Do something you like.

Does exercise carry inevitable discomfort? Absolutely. It’s pushing you to your edge, which isn’t inherently relaxing.

But it is essential for long-term success that you – even moderately– enjoy your routine, especially at the beginning of the habit-formation process.

Here, it is important to play to your strengths. Do you like to run? Don’t get bogged down by the strength training routines you should be doing (at least, not at first) – just run. Do you like to lift weights? Don’t get bogged down by finding the perfect full-body routine – just go to the gym and lift. Do you just want to hang out with your dog and enjoy nature? Don’t get bogged down by the guilt that you should be at the gym – just go hiking with your dog. Does watching your latest Netflix obsession on your iPad as you incline walk on the treadmill make exercise bearable for you? Then do that.

Find what you like, and capitalize on it.

Strategy #4: Be kind to yourself.

Be patient with your personal fitness level. I will be honest with you. Exercise is not fun when you are not fit. It makes many people feel heavy and old and embarrassed. I see, in response to these feelings of inadequacy – two camps tend to distinctly emerge:

  • People in group #1 avoid physical activity because of these feelings. They engineer situations so that they never have to experience the discomfort of being out of shape.
  • People in group #2 “lean in” to these feelings in a self-punishing way, signing up for the 90-day challenge at the local CrossFit box, only to end up injured and taking an exercise hiatus.

Either way, the result is less exercise – not good for habit formation.

When you are just starting out, it is so incredibly important that you do an activity pushes you, but is appropriate for your fitness level (see Strategy #1). If you have been mostly sedentary for a year or more, walking more is a good start. Strength training with the guidance of a personal trainer is also a good start. Going to a beginner’s yoga class is another good start. Signing up for a marathon is probably not a good start.

But take heart – exercise does become more fun over time.

Strategy #5: Don’t exercise to burn calories. 

Add exercise as a positive routine into your healthy lifestyle, but don’t do it to burn calories or eat more food. Exercise is notorious for burning less calories than we estimate. A common mistake that people make when they try to lose weight is exercise over-estimation and eating under-estimation.

If you have a calorie goal that was calculated based on the number of times per week that you exercise, stick with your calorie goal – don’t eat more on days that you exercise. This will completely throw you off, as your goal is based on your exercise already. If anything, this method can cause weight gain.

Instead, leave calories in the domain of nutrition. Don’t get caught up in the insane arithmetic of allowing yourself a cookie based on your 30-minute run. Enjoy exercise for what it is – something that is inherently good for your body, mind, and spirit – and be consistent with it… and watch the magic happen.

Need more help with the specifics? Click this link to get involved in my upcoming online coaching group – there are only three more days to sign up!

You’ll get access to nutrition templates, workouts, and group support – all day, every day, for 12 weeks. The deadline for registration is this Wednesday, and I hope to see you there!

Follow-Up Questions from Last Week

If you want to jump into this free healthy living project, all you have to do is start today by shooting me an e-mail to let me know you’re “in!” I e-mail strategies to my mailing list at the beginning of each week. If you would like to be on this list, please scroll down and sign up!

Last week in “The Difference Between Overeating and Binge Eating,” we explored the subtle – but significant – differences between an accidental caloric surplus and an episode of binging.

Answer the following questions about your experiences with last week’s post:

  • Question 1: What was your reaction to the clarification of deficit, maintenance, and surplus? Were you familiar with this language before? How is it relevant to you?
  • Question 2: What clarity did this topic give you in your own eating habits?
  • Question 3: What strategies can you use to manage your intake of “healthy” foods?

E-mail these answers to me! 

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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