It’s a question you think you know the answer to: How much do you have to EXERCISE to LOSE WEIGHT? But, my friends, the science might surprise you!
On today’s episode of the Fitness Matters podcast, we’re taking a deep dive🌊 into the fascinating topic of exercise, and how it helps (or hinders) your WEIGHT LOSS journey. I’m dispelling some common myths (spoiler alert: you don’t have to spend hours in a gym to get to a healthy weight!) and sharing how our incredibly smart bodies use energy🔌 and deal with stress😟 – key factors in helping us reach our goal🏆.
If you’re ready to learn more about exercising for WEIGHT LOSS, you definitely want to hear this one! Let’s GO!
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Exercising for WEIGHT LOSS (full transcription)
You’re listening to The Fitness Matters Podcast with Pahla B. And this is episode number 232, “Exercising for Weight Loss.” Welcome to The Fitness Matters Podcast where every week we talk about the fitness matters that matter to you. I’m Pahla B, YouTuber, certified life and weight loss coach, soon to be author, and your best middle-aged fitness friend. Are you ready to talk about the fitness mindset that matters to you? Me too. Let’s go.
Hello. Hello. Hello, my friends. It is so good to be here with you today chatting about a topic that is near and dear to my heart. You guys, we are talking about exercise today. Exercise was my gateway drug. It is the way that I made it into basically everything that I call my career and my business today. I stumbled across exercise in my late 30s, after a lifetime of thinking of myself as the kind of person who couldn’t exercise, who wasn’t good at it, who was unathletic, uncoordinated, undesirable of doing exercise. I didn’t think I liked it, which is hilarious to me now. I definitely didn’t think I was good at it, also hilarious to me now. I had a lot of thoughts about exercise that were not helping me get to where I am now.
And because I am here where I am now, I am a fitness coach who is a certified personal trainer, and I am also a certified weight loss and life coach, which means that every time we talk about anything, I am looking at things through three different lenses in a way that I don’t know that other people really do. I know that there are plenty of people who are weight loss coaches, there are plenty of people who are life coaches, there are plenty of people who are fitness coaches. I have this really beautiful intersection of those three that I personally think can be incredibly helpful for you because you get a little bit of the exercise science about how things work on the exercise front, you get a little bit of the weight loss science about how your body works when you are trying to lose weight, and you get a lot – if you follow me – you get a lot of the mindset science of how what you are thinking affects what’s going on with your body and the results that you are getting in your life.
Today is a really beautiful marriage of these three topics. When we talk about exercising for weight loss, there is – I’m going to call this a popular misconception. If you have been around the Pahla B fitness channel for a while, you’ve definitely heard me say that you don’t have to exercise at all in order to lose weight. And I often get questions about that and some pushback about that, and so today we are talking about all of the different aspects of why you don’t have to exercise at all to lose weight and what that means for you from a health and fitness perspective, from a weight loss perspective, and from a life coaching mindset perspective.
So. Are you ready? Let’s dig in. I love this stuff. I’m so excited about this topic, you guys. I get a little wound up, and so I’m just going to warn you, there might be some side rants.There might be some extras today, and enjoy because frankly, that’s my favorite part of the podcast. When I tell people that they do not have to exercise at all, I know that butts up against a lot of conventional wisdom. I mean if you exist on this planet, you have heard the phrase that if you want to lose weight, you have to eat less and move more. Everybody thinks that this is the formula for weight loss, but here’s the thing about exercising really specifically and how it affects your weight: it almost doesn’t. Truly, there is such a small effect on your weight as compared to the effect of eating in a caloric deficit.
And here’s why. When you eat in a caloric deficit, your body has that number of calories with which to perform all of the functions that it’s going to perform. All of the billions of processes that your body does all day, every day, it needs energy – calories – to exist, to function, to do things the way it wants to get things done. So when you eat and have that energy available to you, or in the case of eating in a slight caloric deficit – that slight lack of energy from food coming in – that will help your body to make the decision to tap into its stored energy, which is fat, which is the weight that you carry on your body.
I mean, in case you didn’t know that by the way, it’s why we store fat. Because if your body didn’t think that it needed to store fat, it would just eliminate everything it didn’t need as waste. Your body is incredibly, incredibly smart and complex. Your body knows that there might not be a regular food source. I mean if you think about when we came into existence millions of years ago, about how there was not as many resources for food as there are today, we would have to travel to find it. We would have to hunt. We would have to gather. We would have to do something, versus heading to the grocery store. It’s so convenient for us nowadays. So, your body has a procedure to be able to withstand times when you won’t be able to eat for long amounts of time. And that procedure is to store energy for later on your body in the form of fat.
Absolutely amazing when you think about that. How freaking smart is that? Your body knows that it might need something later, so it holds it back for later. Now again, in today’s modern world where we have an abundance of food available to us at all times, we don’t need to store as much as we take in. However, your body does not have a procedure to simply eliminate that as waste. Your body will continue to do the things that it is supposed to do according to its manual, and that means that it will store fat when it has an excess of energy.
Now, your body also has other reasons for storing fat. Number one – not number one in order of importance or how it makes these decisions, but just number one in terms of, I’m giving you a list of a couple of different reasons why your body stores fat and this is the first one that I’m mentioning – your body will store fat in times of stress. This is, again, actually related to your body knowing that there will be times when it can’t eat for long periods of time. Way back in caveman days, the only form of stress that we ever felt was because of famine because we were possibly going hungry. So your body has a whole standard operating procedure for how to deal with that. And what it does is store fat from basically everything you eat. It doesn’t perform certain functions. Your body will actually make decisions to shut down digestion and shut down upper level thinking so that it won’t use extra calories.
By the way, the energy that your body uses – the energy that your body uses simply to exist – a big portion of energy every single day goes into thinking and digesting. Those are two huge calorie burns for your body, so those are the two things that get shut down when your body is worried that there might not be enough energy to go around. So your body will shut down what it considers extraneous functions like digestion and thinking and problem solving, and it will store fat so that it will stay alive. Your body always, always, always wants to stay alive. So in times of stress way back in caveman days, this kept you alive through a long, cold winter where there was no food. In modern times when you have a boss that you don’t like and a job you have to drive two hours every direction every single day and you feel a lot of stress, your body will actually respond as though you are not getting enough food to eat.
There are also other times that you might be stressing your body, and one of those times is if you are actually doing too much exercise. Yes, my friends, exercise can cause you to store fat. This is number two. Exercise is always stress, so this is like 1A, I guess. Exercise is always stress, and that’s actually really good for you. There’s a certain amount of stress that your body is supposed to handle, and when we use the word stress, we often think about mental stress, but in this case I’m actually talking about mechanical, physical stress – the actual movement of your muscles and your bones and picking up moderately heavy things and putting them back down or moving more rapidly than normal – that creates a level of stress in your body that your body is supposed to. It has operating procedures for how it will handle that.
Some of the things that your body will do in that situation is that it will repair all of the damage that you have done during the exercise stress, which means that your muscles get stronger, your bones get stronger, your heart and lungs operate more effectively and efficiently. This is all good news, right up until it’s not – right up until it actually behaves like any other kind of stress, which again, to your body, is essentially the stress of famine. When your body perceives an amount of stress that, I’m going to call it “too much” even though that is not a definition, and that’s the thing, I don’t actually have a hard and fast like, “Here’s an exact amount of stress that your body can handle and anything over that is too much.” Your body is making decisions dynamically every single minute of every single day about what is too much or what is enough. So in some situations, something might be too much because of other stresses. And in some situations, it might be perfectly handleable.
Another reason why your body might perceive stress is from a lack of sleep. Another reason why your body might perceive stress is from dehydration. In these stressful situations, your body responds by storing energy for later, and generally speaking, along with that energy storage comes some tradeoffs in terms of how your body is spending energy. For example, the shutting down of digestion – and let me clarify that one really quickly, I don’t mean that your body actually shuts down digestion, like you’re literally not digesting at all, I mean that it slows it down so that it’s not operating efficiently and effectively. When your body is operating at peak efficiency, you are capable of thinking new thoughts and being creative and operating at that high level of critical thinking and discernment. You are also digesting food, I’m going to say rapidly. It depends on the food, depends on hydration, depends on a lot of different things, but it will operate at whatever peak efficiency it is capable of.
When your body has this stored energy for later, it makes decisions about when to tap into that stored energy. And the decisions that it makes in spite of all the advertising that you and I have both spent our entire lives seeing, are not simple ones. Your body does not decide to tap into fat simply because you haven’t eaten for a certain amount of time. Your body does not decide to tap into fat because you are exercising at a particular heart rate. Your body does not decide to tap into fat because you have exercised for a particular duration. Your body makes decisions based on lots of factors and inputs, and frankly, I don’t think scientists have actually discovered all of those inputs yet.
We scientists – like I’m a scientist – have found several factors. The things that we know about the factors that we control and can understand are things like how much you sleep, how much exercise you’re getting, how much you’re eating and when, and what kinds of foods you’re eating and when, and all of the things that make up your lifestyle in terms of what you eat, what you drink, what you take in, what you think, how you feel – all of those things get taken into consideration when your body decides to burn fat.
Having laid this out for you about how – I’m just going to call it complicated because we don’t understand all of the mechanisms. To your body it’s actually probably quite simple; it’s exactly the way that it’s supposed to work and therefore that’s the way that it does work. But to our human brains it feels very complicated because we don’t understand all of the different mechanisms that are helping your body make these decisions. So our brains want to make it very simple. “If I do this, then that will happen.” However, it being more complicated than that, our best bet is to control what we can control and let your body do what your body is going to do with those inputs.
In this case, for example, if you are eating over time – meaning over days, weeks, and months – in a slight caloric deficit, it is far more probable that your body will tap into its stored energy than any other factor that you have control over. And here’s why. Let’s say for example that you are exercising – let’s say 20 minutes a day, for example – with your favorite middle-aged best friend on YouTube. If you are working out for about 20 to 25 minutes a day, your body may or may not make the decision to tap into fat then because you are burning energy for a constrained amount of time. Now you will also actually continue to burn energy at a slightly elevated rate after exercise. Depending on which kind of exercise you’re doing, your body has the ability to continue to burn at an elevated rate beyond that for a certain amount of time for a lot of different reasons. And it’s a little bit more than I’d like to get into right now because I kind of want to stay on track even though I’m already pretty far out there.
But that exercise for 20 to 25 minutes a day, it’s a constrained amount of calories that, yes, is elevated over what you were going to be burning had you just been going on about your life. But honestly in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that much more. And having already explained that if you exercise beyond the point where your body is burning energy and is in fact perceiving it as what it considers too much stress, you can exercise to the point where your body would then not be burning the energy, but would be storing the energy. And yes, what I mean is that you can exercise too much to the point where you would store fat instead of burning it. And not knowing exactly where that point is means that it’s truly not worth your time to try and tiptoe all the way up to that point, wherever it is, because A) it’s not going to be the same every day; and B) over time you will accumulate stress that would then work against you versus for you.
Exercise has such a point of diminishing returns, whereas eating in a slight caloric deficit, to the best of my knowledge – if it’s the exact right caloric deficit – does not have that same diminishing returns. However, going too far under has a point of diminishing returns. If you are eating too little, your body will also perceive that as stress as we discussed, and that actually is famine. That actually is you not having enough food to eat, which will trigger the response in your body that will cause it to store energy and shut down the extraneous functions of higher thinking and digestion.
When you don’t exercise at all, I would venture to say that the biggest argument that people say to me really specifically is simply that, “But I have to exercise to be healthy.” And I totally agree with you right up until I don’t. If you take away anything from today’s podcast, let it be this: There is a point of diminishing returns on everything we do. Finding the exact right balance of doing the things is what’s going to get you where you want to go. And knowing where that exact right balance is is basically allowing your body to do what it’s going to do, and then controlling the factors that we control. So thinking to yourself, “I have to exercise in order to be healthy,” is actually not an argument for exercising for weight loss.
And here’s what I mean by this. First of all, there is absolutely a point where exercise is bad for you, and that point is when you are injured. If you have any kind of injury at all, it is absolutely in your best interest to not be exercising. And here’s what I mean by exercising. I mean not doing a regular workout at a regular tempo with regular, whatever your fitness level pre-injury would prescribe. You might still exercise in terms of things like physical therapy, which by the way, if you’ve never done physical therapy before, it is exercise; it is work. You might not feel sweaty as though you’ve gone for a run or something, but your body is taking in this input and making adaptations from it. That is literally the definition of exercise.
You are giving your body an input so that it will purposefully create an adaptation to make you better and stronger and faster. You will be the Bionic Man, or the $10,000 Man and the Bionic Woman. When you are doing physical therapy – which I highly recommend if you have a physical therapist who has recommended such a thing – that is your exercise. So when I’m saying you don’t have to exercise at all, I’m talking about a formal workout that you would be doing from your regular fitness level. I don’t mean that you’re not moving. I don’t mean that you are not doing exercises that are recommended for your injury, or honestly, again here you don’t have to do anything if there is a specific reason why you should be resting completely. The times when you might be resting completely would be when you are recovering from surgery, for example, which I tend to put that in the same kind of category as injury. I mean you have had an injury to your body when you were cut open or even laparoscopically operated on. Those are times in your life when you do not want to have formal exercise, but you might still be moving in ways that are beneficial for your body or resting in ways that are beneficial for your body.
When you think about an exercise program being a series of times when you are moving and resting and moving and resting, then anything that you are doing in order to aid your body, to make some kind of adaptation, you are allowed to think of that as work, exercise, a workout, an exercise regimen, a routine, whatever word you want to use that helps you equate what you are doing (or not doing in the case of recovering) as part of your weight loss routine, as part of your weight loss tasks.
Your weight loss tasks, by the way, let me just clarify this really quickly. There are five of them that we do every day and if you exercise with me, you could say this along with me. Number one, we eat the right number of calories every single day. We drink the right amount of water every single day, which is half your body weight in pounds in fluid ounces of water. We get the right amount of sleep every single day by going to bed at the same time every night, getting up at the same time every morning, and not worrying about how much in between that was actual sleep, because again, your body’s going to do what your body’s going to do. We exercise moderately, which could mean anything you are doing or not doing in order to make a specific adaptation for your body.
We also manage our minds every single day, and this is the part where we’re getting into mind management because here’s the thing. When you tell yourself something along the lines of, “I have to exercise in order to lose weight,” I want you to tune in to how that thought feels. This is the two-step tool in action. This is the part of the podcast where I’m going to refer you to episode 89 (Ep. 089 Mind Management https://pahlabfitness.com/ep-089-mind-management/), where we talk about the two-step tool. You find your thoughts. You decide if they’re helpful. We’ve found the thought. The thought is, “I have to exercise to lose weight.” And I want you to tap into how you feel when you say, “I have to.” I will tell you, it doesn’t matter how you finish that sentence. “I have to” always creates a sense of pressure.
Now, you might use a different word. When I just said “always,” not every single person is going to describe it with that exact same feeling. It’s in the neighborhood of pressure, demand, that crushing feeling of, “I have to.” It feels as though it is out of your control. Another feeling you might feel in terms of the pressure is maybe a powerlessness, an inability to be in control of your own destiny. Those feelings, my friends, this is how we know whether or not a thought is helpful. Those feelings don’t feel good. Those feelings feel lousy. And if you have a lousy feeling, that means that you have a lousy/unhelpful thought. “I have to exercise to lose weight,” is an unhelpful thought. And as I’ve just proven to you – I hope I proved it to you – it’s not true.
Now, whether or not it’s true, I just want to clarify this one really, really quickly because we get caught up sometimes. I know I get caught up very frequently, when I’m in the middle of my journaling and I’m really struggling to tap into the compassionate observer and decide whether or not a thought is helpful or unhelpful, I will notice my brain debating sometimes whether or not it’s true. True isn’t always helpful. Sometimes something will sound so true in your mind. Clearly this is a fact that everybody could agree on; it’s obviously true. It’s frequently not. It’s usually not a fact. It’s 99.99999% an opinion that I’ve heard in my brain so many times, my brain has become so efficient with it that it feels so true.
The thing about truth though is that maybe it’s not helpful. I mean for example, this is something that I have heard many times when somebody will tell me, “But here’s the thing, the truth, the fact is that I really only did get four hours of sleep last night and my body prefers eight. Therefore, the truth is that I slept poorly.” Now the truth is the fact of, “I was asleep for four hours.” The thought, “I slept poorly,” is what’s unhelpful. Sometimes a thing might be factually true and your thought about it is unhelpful, therefore it is not moving you forward to think about the thing like that.
When you say, “I was asleep for four hours,” if you are not continuing on in your mind, “and that’s terrible and that’s bad for me and I should have slept more and I feel really tired and then everything is wrong and now I’ll never be able to lose weight.” If you can simply listen to the sentence in and of itself, “I got four hours of sleep last night,” that might be a helpful sentence because it is factual and true and that is all that you are thinking about that situation, recognizing that all the other parenthetical stuff about, “and that’s bad and I should have, and blah, blah, blah,” that those are all the unhelpful thoughts surrounding it.
When we think, “I have to do something,” it is frequently followed up by the thought, “Or I’ll never get where I want to go.” And I want you to recognize that thought for what it is also. When you have a specific set of circumstances right now of, for example, possibly recovering from an injury or a surgery, possibly exercising less than you could be because of any number of reasons, thinking that something that is possibly temporary – and I’m going to get into if this is permanent here in just a second – but if it is temporary, thinking that this is something that will hold you back is again an unhelpful thought.
If you have a situation in which you are permanently incapable of exercising in the way that you have thought about exercise before for example, then thinking, “I have to,” is going to be incredibly unhelpful and thinking, “And that means I’ll never get there,” is also unhelpful. The fact is, exercise is only one of the inputs that drives weight loss, and it’s not even the most important one. Truly, it’s not. The main driver of weight loss is being in a slight caloric deficit over time, and if I had to argue about this, I would actually say that the co-main driver of weight loss is your belief that it is possible. Your mindset, the thoughts you think, and whether or not they are helpful for moving you forward are very, very powerful. The things you think are the things that you create in your life.
Recognizing that you are capable of losing weight without exercise can change everything for you, honestly. Recognizing that your rules around what you’re willing to call exercise or a workout also might be part of your unhelpful thoughts that are slowing down your results is really worthy of exploring. Understanding the science of it, of how your body does what it does and what exercise actually means, which is again, that you are doing something specific – be that moving or resting in order to create a specific adaptation in your body – when you use that definition of exercise, honestly you are always exercising. You are. You are doing something specific and intentional to get a result. You can call that exercise.
And in fact, I highly encourage you to, because our social world uses that word exercise as though it is part of being healthy, as though it is part of losing weight. We use that as such common vernacular that you redefining it for yourself and really believing that what you are doing is the right thing to do means that it will be the right thing to do. It means that you will be able to get results. When you feel like this thought is helpful for you, it will be helpful.
And I want to address really quickly – because I feel like this is also a common misconception – that when I say you don’t have to exercise at all, that the other half of the argument, “Oh, of course I have to exercise,” is that we equate exercising with being healthy. Now here’s where I actually do agree with you – that when we do specific intentional things to create specific intentional adaptations in our body, that yes, that will create health in our body. But here’s the difference between losing weight and getting healthy. I truly believe that losing weight is only part of the journey to getting healthy, that if we think about health as a destination – which, by the way, it’s actually not – being healthy is something that you are going to have to maintain and that means that therefore there is no finish line. But getting to, let’s call it your peak of optimal health for you, I truly believe that comes further down the road than weight loss.
I think that weight loss is truly one of the tasks that you will do on your way to optimal health. Some of the other tasks that you will do on your way to optimal health are actually creating sleeping habits where you are capable of getting a healthy amount of sleep; creating eating habits that are the optimal for health for you, for your desires; creating exercise habits that are optimal for you, for your health, all of the things; and creating a healthy mindset wherein you are capable of recognizing when you are having unhelpful thoughts and knowing what to do with those, as in categorizing them as unhelpful and finding helpful thoughts for yourself that continue you on your journey.
Some people – and I’m going to say that this is actually very rare – some people arrive at their optimal health at the same approximate time that they arrive at their healthy weight. I will tell you that I have seen it far more often that we – and I’m absolutely including myself in this – we get to our healthy weight and then still kind of have to figure out how to be healthy. But all the things that we went through on our weight loss journey are absolutely helpful for getting us to our optimum health, but it’s not the same. Being healthy, in my opinion, means being at a healthy weight, having healthy habits, and having a healthy mind. So for me personally, okay, I was a healthy weight in about nine months. It took me about nine months to lose 30 pounds. This was about 15 years ago. It took me, I’m going to say a good three years to develop healthy habits.
I’m actually still kind of refining. I still think of that as a work in progress for how I eat and what I eat and how it settles with me, partly because this is just how your body works. As your body changes through menopause or getting older or lots of other reasons, you will find that foods that used to feel really healthy may not feel so healthy anymore. So I do actually think that eating healthfully is something that you’re going to have to monitor, as far as I can tell, for the rest of your life. I think that having healthy sleeping habits, they change over time as we age. Apparently we need less sleep. I’m not finding that yet, but I might not be there yet as far as exactly when that tipping point changes.
Healthy habits are not static. So coming to a place where you have healthy habits, you’re still going to need some monitoring. But for me, developing healthy habits – even thinking about having healthy habits – took a good three years, at least. For me personally, having a healthy mindset – again a work in progress; I’m not there; I’m not done – I think that I have found a good balance that feels healthy to me that I could still improve on but this feels like I’m in a healthy place with my mindset. That has taken me at least six to eight years. Oh gosh, probably longer than that. I’ll go with six to eight for right now because that’s when I actually started thinking about mindset and my thoughts and how they worked and what was working for me and what was working against me. Before that, I had plenty of unmanaged mind, plenty of unmanaged mind, but that’s when I actually decided to do something about it. It was probably about six to eight years ago.
So for me personally, weight loss was a blip. It was the tiniest part of my journey on my way to being at an optimally healthy place. I am now, of course, continuing to monitor and then will continue to work on to remain healthy. So when you think, again, “I have to exercise to be healthy,” what you are doing right now isn’t the only thing that you are ever going to do and taking that big picture approach to it can really help you see that the things that you are doing aren’t permanent. They’re dynamic. You are capable, and I highly recommend that you do continue to monitor and assess and make changes as necessary for your changing body. What you are doing right now isn’t your final destination, and recognizing that can really help you understand how some of the thoughts that you’re having right now about, “I have to exercise to lose weight. I have to exercise to be healthy. I have to or I’m never going to get there” – those kinds of thoughts aren’t helpful for your optimal health.
When you think about exercise, I wholeheartedly encourage you to be the compassionate observer. This is the part of the podcast I’m going to recommend that you listen to the compassionate observer episode (Ep. 211 The Compassionate Observer https://pahlabfitness.com/ep-211-the-compassionate-observer/) so that you can really take a loving look at what you are doing, how you are feeling, and what you are thinking so that you can make really informed choices about what you are doing, how you are feeling, and what you are thinking to get where you want to go
My friends, this was a very practical episode that also got very much into mindset. I really, really hope that this was helpful for you. Thank you so much for listening. I’ll see you again soon.
If you are getting a lot out of the Fitness Matters Podcast and you’re ready to take it to the next level, you are going to love the Get Your Goal Coaching and Accountability Group. We take all the theory and knowledge here on the podcast and actually apply it in real life on your real weight loss and fitness goals. It’s hands on, it’s fun, and it works. Find out more at pahlabfitness.com/get-your-goal and let’s get your goal.