From an energy balance perspective, this statement is actually incorrect. To lose 1 pound, one must eliminate 3,500 calories. This is more difficult to do exclusively via exercise than diet. Studies also show that exercise alone is ineffective at generating significant weight losses, especially in comparison to diet. In spite of this data (none of which I’m challenging), I still hold strong that exercise will make or break your long-term weight loss success.
Weight loss is, from a biological perspective, a matter of energy balance (energy in, energy out), however your ability to impact your energy balance is far more about psychology than biology. Attempting to consume less than you expend requires you to battle both your biology (e.g., genetic variations in appetite, fat storage, metabolism) and your environment (e.g., a toxic food supply, friends/family, stress). These forces gradually weaken most well-intentioned people, eventually sucking them back into the vortex of overweight.
This is where exercise becomes the golden ticket. The psychological benefits of exercise can give you greater strength to combat these forces. Think Popeye and his spinach. You are Popeye. The toxic food environment (and your genetics or some combination) is Brutus. Exercise is your spinach.
I really need you to “eat your spinach.” Here’s why:
Self-control/Willpower. Studies show that exercise actually increases our capacity for self-control. Oaten & Cheng (2006) showed that during a 2 month phase of regular exercise (relative to a control phase with no exercise), participants reported significant decreases in stress, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and an increase in healthy eating, maintenance of household chores, attendance to commitments, monitoring of spending, and improvements in study habits. Exercise seems to just help us keep our act together across the board. Dieting demands self-control but does not produce it. Exercise demands self-control, but also produces it. If you invest in exercise, controlling your diet will become easier.
Stress. Stress is easily the biggest barrier to successful weight loss. Time and time again people cite busy lifestyles, having no time and too many commitments as the reason they fail at weight loss. Exercise is your stress reduction ace-in-the-hole. Exercise has both an immediate and long-term impact on stress levels, and even buffers the damaging effect of stress hormones on the body. Dieting does not have any positive physiological or psychological impact on stress.
Passion. Exercise starts as a drudgery but transforms into a passion–not necessarily for exercise, but for your body. Your body goes from betraying you to impressing you. Exercise is one of the best ways to fall in love with your body. Every day I tweet a reason to exercise. The other day it was this: “Because there are no words to describe the feeling at the finish line of a race you never thought you could do.” I got some amazing responses, but my favorite was from one woman who said she plans on bursting into tears at her next race. THAT is the passion I’m talking about.
Self-confidence. This one is huge. I have been reading Elizabeth Comeau’s blog, she is the Senior Health and Wellness Producer at Boston.com. She has been chronicling her weight loss journey on the blog and tweeting about it along the way (follow her at @bewellboston. A few months ago she ran her first 5k. Shortly thereafter she signed up for a 10k. I kidded her on Twitter about half marathons in her future. She responded by saying something along lines of “fat chance!” Would you believe the day after she crossed the 10k finish line, she announced she’s signing up for a half marathon? I’m not at all crediting my suggestion, but rather the power of exercise to believe you can do things you never thought possible. Through exercise, she is trading pounds for self-confidence and busting through goals she probably never even dreamed of setting. Whatever you think you are physically capable of doing will change as you climb the ladder of fitness. If I haven’t convinced you, then watch this video which may not only change your mind, but it may change your life.
I’m not saying don’t bother with healthy diet. I’m saying whatever you do, you must exercise. Exercise will change you…not in a good way, in a GREAT way. It’s not impossible to achieve your weight loss goal without it, but it will be a hell of a lot harder.
Oaten, M. & Cheng, K. (2006). Longitudinal gains in self-regulation from regular physical exercise. British Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 717-733.
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