Disconnecting Diet From Exercise Might Make You Exercise More

Disconnecting Diet From Exercise
Diet and exercise have become so commingled in our cultural discussion of health that I’m surprised we don’t have a compound word for it. Perhaps we can call it “diercise” or “exerdie.” Hmmm. We probably don’t want the word “die” in there. Either way, diet and exercise go together like peanut butter and jelly (unless you have a nut allergy and/or aren’t American and wonder why the heck we eat so much peanut butter). In other words, diet and exercise are both really important for a healthy life.

But we have a problem. A lot of us can’t crack apart the metaphorical covalent bond holding together these two words. That “AND” looms large. One can’t happen without the other. Many subconsciously think, “I missed my workout, might as well eat a dozen donuts,” or “I had a dozen donuts, what’s the point in working out?” How many people start a diet and an exercise program at the same time? When the diet fizzles, so does the exercise, or vice versa. This is because inextricably connecting exercise to diet makes exercise ABOUT diet. And, when we think “diet,” we think “weight.” Ergo, exercise has somehow become about weight. For many of us, this way of thinking makes us less healthy in the long run.

Breaking the Bond

How can we fix this all-or-nothing thought trap? Break the bond. Disconnect diet from exercise. Breaking the bond doesn’t mean devaluing diet or exercise. It simply means giving each their own due. We need to eat, preferably not junk. We need to move. And from an energy standpoint, we need to eat so we can move, but that doesn’t mean we need to move to justify any particular meal.

Breaking the bond also means exercising for reasons OTHER THAN weight loss. Frankly, exercise alone isn’t that good at helping people lose weight. For example, a 2012 article in the journal Obesity concluded

To effectively reduce body weight it is widely accepted that a negative energy balance needs to be present; whereas, to maintain weight loss and prevent weight gain, energy balance needs to be present. Thus, physical activity can be an important intervention to achieve desired body-weight regulation. However, the effect of physical activity alone on reductions in body weight may be somewhat modest.

In plain english, this means exercise alone doesn’t cause much weight loss. But exercise combined with dieting will help, especially for weight maintenance. Wait, isn’t this saying we should connect, not disconnect, diet and exercise? Well, it’s not that simple. The article also said

There is a growing body of scientific literature to support the effect of physical activity on health-related outcomes independent of body weight. For example, data from the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study has consistently shown an inverse relationship between fitness and mortality in adults regardless of level of weight status (normal weight, overweight, obese).

Exercise can improve health markers independent of weight loss. This doesn’t mean obese individuals shouldn’t strive for weight loss. Reducing body weight independent of exercise also has positive health benefits. And this is a point the article makes. But I’m not convinced connecting weight and exercise will make people exercise more. Indeed, this connection might be counterproductive for a substantial chunk of the population (ahem, perfectionist moms).

Overall, highlighting studies like this can make weight the exercise red herring because this study doesn’t answer HOW to get people to move. It doesn’t say weight reduction is the most important benefit of exercise. And it doesn’t even say exercise is all that important to weight reduction, just that it helps minimize weight regain (I’m not criticizing this paper, which is actually awesome, but I am criticizing ongoing public debates about whether exercise matters for weight loss).

I see studies like this bandied about blogs all the time. And my usual thought is “who cares if exercise has an additive effect, a modest effect, or even no effect on weight loss?” When we make exercise about weight, we set ourselves up for all-or-nothing thinking. And if we don’t lose weight, or, gasp, actually gain weight when exercising, we might throw in our sweaty towel. We shouldn’t do that. Exercise is arguably the most important habit we can cultivate for better health.

Change the Spotlight

Anecdotally, making exercise about weight loss means most people will not stick with exercise, just as most people do not stick with diets. The motivation is too temporary. Meanwhile, while the internet debates which macronutrient to shun or valorize, evidence that exercise is awesome keeps on plugging along. Exercise is SO important that is deserves its own throne. It deserves to be part of your life regardless of what you weigh, what you want to weigh, or what you had for breakfast.

If you can’t muster the energy to exercise, try to think of a motivation disconnected to immediate weight loss. None of the following motivations are mind blowing, but the benefits are not time limited (other than the literal time limit on our lives).

  1. Exercise reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and some cancers: Exercise reduces risk factors in many ways, not just via weight management. For example, exercise improves the ability of blood vessels to dilate and provide oxygen throughout the body. Exercise also has a direct affect on insulin sensitivity in those with and without diabetes. Exercise is certainly not the only variable affecting risk factors for these diseases, but science has shown again and again that exercise is a pretty big piece of the health puzzle. Don’t exercise to lose those last five pounds. Do it because you want to hedge your cancer and heart attack bets.
  2. Exercise Makes You Stronger: It also might narrow a diastasis recti, strengthen pelvic floor tone (if done correctly), give you bigger biceps, make tasks of everyday living easier, and provide an ego boost. It’s hard to see the absence of something, so a “reduction in cardiovascular risk factors” may not be enough motivation, but your muscles will show up, and you’ll be able to tell when you’ve gotten stronger, all pleasantly somatic motivations. Ironically, this side effect of exercise can actually cause weight gain for some people. Keep in mind, gaining muscle takes time, so if the scale goes up in the first months of starting an exercise program, well, it’s probably not muscle. That said, I’ve personally gained about 5 pounds of muscle (and also a few pounds of “not muscle” because I like pizza). In the long term, exercise hasn’t caused weight reduction, which I think is cool because I started out pretty thin and used to have what friends lovingly called “chicken arms.”
  3. Exercise Reduces Your Risks of Falls as You Age: Unless you spend time with the elderly, this benefit may not seem all that important. But you’d be wrong. Falling sucks. For example, according to the CDC, 1 out of 5 falls in the 65 and over crowd causes a serious injury, and a whopping 95% of hip fractures are caused by falling. Strength and balance can help reduce toppling incidents. How do you improve strength and balance? By moving. If we are lucky, we will age. Nothing will stop that. Making exercise a habit can help manage the pitfalls of aging. It’s also altruistic. Keeping in better shape puts less of a burden on grown children who care for their parents. Frankly, I started exercising to narrow a diastasis recti and improve pelvic floor disorder, but I continue to exercise because I want to keep my bones and body as strong as possible. Nobody gets younger, no matter how much kale they eat.
  4. Exercise Improves Your Mood: We have lots of evidence that exercise modulates stress. And it doesn’t have to be yoga. Basically any type of movement can improve your mood. It might do this through endorphins or the mental break or increased self-confidence. Regardless of the mechanism, I’ve noticed exercise really does help, even just 15 minutes here or there. Ah, but with one caveat: It only de-stresses me when I disconnect exercise to any immediate external goal, like losing weight or closing a diastasis or working off a particular meal. Even though exercise can help with those things, failing to reach a self-imposed external goal might dampen the stress relief (Go to a college gym where already slender girls obsess about the calorie counts on the elliptical and you’ll see what I mean).

Exercise as stress relief was a huge turning point in my relationship to physical activity. During our most recent move, I joked with my husband that all the stress was making me eat way too much chocolate, but that it was also making me crave 15 minute workouts just because “I needed to flush out the anxiety.” I didn’t work out to combat the chocolate (15 minute intervals wouldn’t make a caloric dent). I moved because I needed to calm my brain and distract myself. I had finally given exercise its own slot, which made me oddly proud of myself. I was stress eating chocolate. That was temporary. But I was also exercising just because I wanted to. That was permanent.

I’ll never be a fitness model, nutrition saint, or cross-fit warrior. And that’s okay with me. I’ve found a way to make exercise work with my life and goals. This means finding motivations unrelated to fitspiration memes. It means thinking of movement as a fact of life, not as a 21 day challenge to get awesome abs. And, it means permanently disconnecting my diet from exercise. I wish I had learned this in my twenties (and had learned to avoid “Soviet red” hair dye with Czech instructions). Ah, the benefits of maturity.

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