Why you need to do more than just go to the gym

Have you ever gotten on a gym kick and decided you were gettin’ that membership, signing up for that personal trainer, and committing to going daily? And then after a week or two got on the scale expecting to see the pounds just melt off? I mean, you’ve been working your tail off and you can barely open a pickle jar these days because your arms hurt so bad. It’s only fair that the scale should be at least ten pounds down. At least.

But that’s not what happens. In fact, you gained weight.

Your personal trainer tells you some line about muscle gains. But deep down you know it’s unlikely. You hurt but not enough to justify two pounds of muscle in seven days for God’s sake. So why did this happen?

Here are some possible reasons:

  1. You didn’t change your diet to coincide with this newfound lease on exercise. And more often than not, people increase their caloric intake because naturally, you feel hungrier with the extra calorie burn and you eat to match that hunger. Or, feelings of “earning” that extra slice of pizza creep in- I mean seriously, your personal trainer was pretty hard on you today.
  2. You did change your diet, but you’ve cut your calories way too low and now your body has gone into starvation mode (i.e. storage factory for calories because you’re burning them and cutting them and your metabolism doesn’t know what to do with that.) Side note: this is usually not the case, but it’s worth mentioning for anyone who has cut their calories <1000. Our bodies are better at protection from famine than we given it credit for.
  3. You’ve increased your carb intake either with protein shakes from the gym’s ultra fancy smoothie bar or any extra post-work out snack full of carbs and now your body is storing it all with water because that’s what carbs cozy up with and leave you feeling bloated.
  4. The most likely cause: you’ve given yourself permission to sit on the couch for the rest of the day and you aren’t living a physically active lifestyle. Did you know people who live a physically active lifestyle are actually healthier than those who just go to the gym and do nothing else? Were gyms even a “thing” for non-athletes twenty or thirty years ago?

So let’s talk about getting physically active. Because prior to the computer age, desk jobs weren’t so common. But now that we are spending most of our lives sitting down, at a computer, we have to be more aware of what many health professionals call “the sitting disease.” If you are spending seven hours or more sitting (watching television, reading a book/newspaper, playing/working on your phone or tablet, or at your computer), you are at risk. Recent studies have suggested that is is just as bad for our health as smoking. Smoking!!

Let’s be clear – being physically active is not the same as exercise. And this can be good news for those of us that don’t particularly care for planned exercise. A study done at Mayo Clinic compared something they called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) between self proclaimed “couch potatoes”  and people who were more physically active. NEAT includes activities like laughing, fidgeting, standing, walking, and talking. Both sets of groups wore underwear that measured their every move, day and night.

What they found was that the people who were able to turn on their NEAT did NOT gain fat when they were overfed by 1000 calories daily. People who didn’t turn on their NEAT gained TEN TIMES more fat. Can you believe that??

So how can you apply this to your life?

I suggest getting yourself a good pedometer so that you can track your daily steps. I really like the Omron HJ325. You will quickly find that you probably walk less than 3000 steps per day and that’s not good. It’s easier than you think to increase this though. Just ten minutes at a time is enough to count as a walking activity. So, plan for three, ten minute walks a day and you are doing the same thing as if you decided to do a thirty minute walk all at once. But, you are more likely to stay consistent with this routine.

Why? Because let’s say you always walk for thirty minutes after work. Inevitably something is going to happen after work every so often – you get a flat tire, the kids have a ball game, you’re too tired, you get caught at work late, etc. However, if you split it up, you still at least got twenty minutes in and you’re only out those ten minutes after work. Make sense? So commit to splitting it up. The other benefit of this is, most of us won’t have to get on any special work out clothes or take a shower after a ten minute walk.

So how many steps are enough? Your first goal will be to work your way up to 5000 to get out of the sedentary zone. Then, keeping in mind if you have been a total couch potato, work yourself up without beating yourself up using the below chart. Another way to look at is, if the amount of steps you are walking is meeting your weight goals (i.e. you are maintaining or losing), then it’s enough. If it’s not (so, you’re gaining weight), well then you need to add steps or cut back on your calorie intake.

Also, think of your typical day now. Are there times when you could be standing rather than sitting? For example, could you move that piece of exercise equipment that is holding up your clothes to a place in front of your tv? Could you stand while taking phone calls at work instead of sitting? Can you take the stairs rather than an elevator? Park a little further away? This stuff adds up.

Whether you like going to the gym or not, it’s important to remember that it’s about our lifestyle as a whole when it comes to weight loss and weight maintenance. Set some daily goals starting now and you’ll be surprised how far you can go over the next six months.

P.S. If you’ve been looking for support, you’ve come to the right place, request to join my online support group for all things nutrition and weight loss support.

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Jillian McMullen, CSOWM, RDN, LDN