We’ve all heard the ads on the radio for weight-loss products that end with a low voice quickly saying, “As part of a sensible diet and exercise program.” But is a diet and exercise program really so sensible? When we’re trying to lose weight, our first steps are usually two-fold: cleaning up our eating habits and regularly hitting the gym. We try to stick to both plans as closely as possible—but since we’re working out and eating well, the occasional post-workout muffin won’t hurt our weight loss progress, right?
According to Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson, New York Times best-selling author and founder of Bright Line Eating, this mentality actually ends up sabotaging our weight loss goals over time. “Exercise will undermine your attempts to lose weight,” Dr. Thompson says, because of the compensation effect that gets created when you work out regularly. “After you’ve been to the gym, you justify and rationalize grabbing a bagel and a latte—and you negate the work that you put in at the gym all week long.”
Why is it that we’re led to believe that exercise is going to help us lose weight? “In our society, we’ve just paired those two ideas together,” Dr. Thompson says. “Exercise is great for toning up your muscle and it burns calories, so it just stands to reason that exercise would help you lose weight—but the reality is that because of other factors, exercise actually leads you to stay heavy.”
How exercise undermines your weight loss goals
In addition to framing that calorie-laden post-workout treat as a reward you earned, Dr. Thompson says exercise makes sticking to your eating plan harder to do by depleting your self-control. “Getting to the gym, and whatever it is you’re doing at the gym, drains your willpower, leaving less reserves available for when you’ve left the gym,” she explains. Because you’ve already pushed yourself through your workout, the temptation to grab something quick and off your food plan on your way home is much greater than if you had used that time and willpower to prepare and eat a healthy meal.
This cycle is particularly problematic for your long-term weight loss plans, since food is the foundation of sustained weight loss success. “What you weigh is a direct function of what you eat,” Dr. Thompson says. “Ask bodybuilders—they’ll tell you that getting cut is not about lifting weights—it’s about food.” If you’re leaving the gym without a dinner plan in place because of the time shortage your workout created, Dr. Thompson says you’re setting yourself up to fail. “You’re never going to succeed by making your food choices on the fly. If you’ve left your house in the morning and you don’t know what you’re eating that day you’ve already lost. When it comes to food, our willpower doesn’t show up for us in the moment.”
How to achieve long-term success
The proof is in the data: of the thousands of people who have participated in the Bright Line Eating Boot Camp, those who didn’t work out during the first 60 days of the program saw the most success. “People who don’t exercise tend to lose more weight and keep it off,” says Dr. Thompson, “because they’re focusing all their energy and willpower on developing new eating habits, and making them automatic. Sticking to the Bright Line Eating plan allows people to adopt a really helpful, specific structure that lets them know exactly what to eat and when, with habits and automaticity built in at every checkpoint.” According to Dr. Thompson, taking the time to focus on getting this eating plan hardwired into our daily routines is critical for weight loss. “You need to learn to eat in a systematic, automatized way—and that’s going to take several months. You need to focus on getting your eating right, following your routine, and never deviating.”
When to incorporate exercise
If you do want to incorporate exercise into your routine, Dr. Thompson says to make sure you have your eating down first. “With something like eating, which is a comprehensive system, it involves changing more than one behavior,” she explains. “It’s different for everyone, but you might want to think about giving yourself four or five months of really clean, systematized eating so that habit is really ingrained.” And requires zero willpower. “Once you can say that eating the right thing every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is completely automatic, then it’s time to introduce exercise.”
“Don’t get me wrong, exercise is great for so many things,” says Dr. Thompson. As long as you’re not relying on it for weight loss and unwittingly sabotaging yourself in the process. “It improves your self-esteem, your cognitive function, short-term and long-term memory—it’s even good for your sex life. It’s good for just about everything—except losing weight.”
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