Why Exercise and Burning Calories Won’t Help You Lose Weight

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I wrote this post for MindBodyGreen. Deep breaths and enjoy!

The veil has been lifted on the fat free craze (thank you Michael Pollan), fad diets are losing steam (bye bye South Beach Diet, hello natural foods), and now it’s time to tackle the exercise myth. Working out, sweating your body weight, pushing yourself, and burning calories, whether it’s at the gym or yoga studio, DOES NOT lead to weight loss. Pushing, burning, and sweating often actually leads to WEIGHT GAIN. Screech! What? Hold the phone, right?!

Let’s examine what you practice and what’s going on in your body and mind. Pushing yourself at any activity builds tension in your body, along with the associated stress cocktail in your brain. Tension in your mind leads to lots of tense habits and activities. Let’s be honest, does this internal dialogue sound familiar: “Man, this is tough, gritting my teeth, ugh, I hate my body, I hate where I am right now, I hate what I did last night, if only I could do this pose or spin faster or run faster, I could make up for it and achieve all my goals!” That type of dialogue causes stress. You start holding your breath, and a whole lot of not-so-nice stuff happens in the physiology of your body. Don’t worry. No judgments here. It’s internal dialogue, so no one can actually hear your self-deprecating thoughts. But you know they are there!

It’s ok. We should talk about it, because it’s a super common behavior, and no one is talking about it. If we do shed light on what’s going on in our minds and bodies when we’re exerting physical effort, we can begin to choose how we are, in a way that creates what we want. This will be a big step up from getting caught in the hamster wheel of making up for (or punishing ourselves for) unhealthy behavior, and the misinformation that tags along about calorie burning and fat blasting.

We get good at what we practice. If we practice responding to stress with aggression – whether it’s in the gym, on the track, or in the yoga studio – we get good at aggression. We’ll relate aggressively, work aggressively, eat aggressively, generally without noticing – because we’ve practiced it so much! We might burn some calories along the way, but no way it will ever match up to what we can eat and drink, long before we begin to notice how our bodies feel and what we need to be healthy.

Here’s the thing: if exercise doesn’t change how we eat for the better, it will never ever lead to weight loss and a healthy body. In particular, if our way of exercising is aggressive, pushing, forcing, we’ll just build tension and carry it through the rest of our lives. We’ll eat aggressively, mindlessly, without the self-connection that’s our best road to being healthy. And there’s no amount of fat-blasting and calorie-burning in our lives that ever comes close to correcting what the wrong foods can do to us.

Tension in the brain leads to tense habits. Eating for reward, emotional eating, and over-eating to “get through the tough workout” all come from tension in our minds and bodies, rather than ease. When you practice tense, you reinforce tense. If you love your form of exercise, whether it’s spinning, running, yoga, hiking, dancing, whatever, that enjoyment is causing a different cocktail of chemicals in your brain, that lead you in the direction of treating yourself well. Doing what you love leads you to happiness and good health. Activities that make you feel free, connected, calm and capable reinforce habits that keep creating the same feelings. Activities that make you feel anxious, stressed, and not good enough also lead to reinforcing habits. The activity itself doesn’t matter. What matters is how you feel about it. How you practice is most important.

Yoga is not the magic wonder drug, and I’m not yoga’s agent. I’m for everyone discovering ways to connect with themselves, and find the space to create their own best lives. I see plenty of people who walk into Strala and grit their teeth through the entire class, as if it’s one more task to get through. It’s so unnecessary. You can do hard things easily. It’s actually possible and everyone can do it. Life doesn’t have to be tense. Yoga doesn’t have to be tense. When you move with ease, whether you’re attempting a handstand, running 10 miles, negotiating a business deal, or talking with a friend, your brain has space to flow in creativity and intuition. Sounds like meditation? When you exist in ease, every moment in your life becomes meditative and space has a chance to enter. You have room to breathe, room to release tension, room to create yourself healthy and happy. When you’re in this space you begin to expand and see beyond each moment. You become yourself. You’re able to make good decisions, be in the zone, and allow room for synchronicity. Your life heads in the right direction when you give it space. When you squash it with tension, well, it gets squashed.

So what happens when things aren’t so healthy? When you move through the activities of your life tense, the brain has no space. You end up moving without understanding, seeing or feeling you. You find your way into tension-related activities, like over-eating, drinking alcohol, or yelling at a cab driver. It’s much nicer to feel expansive and connected to yourself. When you’re feeling this way, you are back to your natural state, happy and free. Sounds nice right? You can do it! We all can live in happiness and feeling good. It’s a practice of cultivating ease.

You can practice tense or you can practice with ease. Practice ease during challenging and simple movements alike. If you practice tense, say jumping into handstands and forcing yourself into poses that your body isn’t able to do easily (ease comes with practice!), you will wind up more tense than when you started. This leads to tense eating habits, most likely reward and over-eating habits. Of course it’s a practice. Getting to easy is a practice and probably isn’t always perfect. With yoga, and any other activity in life, we have the opportunity to observe without judgment, and then do something about it.

Of course physical activity is good for you. It can be fantastic for your mood, energy, range of motion, shape and tone of your body, breathing capabilities and more. Keep exercising! Just understand that – despite a large volume of persistent outdated information – exercise on its own has very little to do with weight loss. How you live has to do with weight loss. How you handle stress, how you practice calm connection to yourself, has to do with the life and health you’re able to create.

You are what you eat. Now we come down to what you are actually putting in your body. Food rules. Food is fuel, it shapes our body, it determines our health, our energy levels, and our liveliness. If your exercise isn’t helping you dial your eating habits to fresh, simple, natural, whole, inspired, colorful foods, lots of water, not so much on the booze, and easy on the caffeine, you might want to take a second look at how you feel about your exercise routine. Are you doing ____ (insert yoga, spinning, running, dancing, etc) to burn calories, or are you doing it to feel great in your body, improve your mood, and feel vibrant? Are you doing it to correct a bunch of mis-steps, or because you love it? When you find a routine that makes you feel vibrant, and offers up a stream of new challenges to explore and enjoy, simmer in that. It will have a very positive impact on your overall health, and your waist line.