This was originally posted on U.S. News & World Report's webiste.
If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: Exercising for the primary goal of losing weight will not help most people stick with exercise over time. It may get you to start, but it most likely sets you up to exercise in ways that you don't like. As a result, you'll stop once you get tired of forcing yourself to adhere to this regimen and feel like a failure – again. Not only do you not achieve your weight-loss goal, but you also miss out on the multitude of benefits of being active.
My studies are not the only research supporting this contention. Other behavioral researchers also find that focusing on weight loss is far from the most strategic way to stay motivated to enjoy and benefit from regular physical movement. For example, one recent study on fitness centers found that people motivated to exercise by weight loss go to the gym less frequently than those with different goals.
What's more, a parallel (and growing!) body of knowledge in the biological sciences aligns with this perspective; it suggests that physical activity is generally an ineffective tool for losing weight. Take one recent study, for instance, in which researchers investigated almost 2,000 people in different countries over five years and found that physical activity was not necessarily a shield against weight gain.
Even Martin Gibala, the founder of high-intensity interval training (a type of exercise involving short bursts of all-out exercise), doesn't necessarily endorse fitness as a clear route to weight loss. "In general, exercise is not a huge contributor to weight control. People don't like to hear that, but it's true," he said in a recent New York Times story. "It is much easier to cut calories in the diet than to burn large numbers of them with exercise of any kind."
On top of that, Kevin Hall, a leading weight-loss scientist at the National Institutes of Health, told Vox last year, "Exercise isn't a weight-loss tool for health. It's excellent for health. It's the best single thing you can do after you stop smoking to improve your health. But don't look at it as a weight-loss tool."
You and your health professionals might be alarmed by the idea that what you've always been told – that exercise is an important way to lose weight – sets most of us up to fail most of the time. But more and more professionals who work in health, wellness and fitness discover the same thing: The goal of "weight loss" doesn't help most of their patients and clients stay motivated over time. Put bluntly: When you're told you should exercise for weight loss, you probably won't stick with your physical activity program – even though you actually want and intend to do so.
How many times are you going to approach taking better care of yourself with a strategy that has failed numerous times in the past? If this most common and traditional approach to physical activity doesn't keep most of us motivated, isn't it time for all of us – including you and your health care team – to pause and wonder whether we should ditch it? If you truly want to be consistently more active and take better care of yourself, start thinking about physical activity in a new way.
Science shows that what works most consistently is what feels good now – not something that feels like hard work or punishment, even if you're doing it for a great reason. If you want to motivate yourself or others to strive for a distant goal like weight loss and health, you need to translate it into its immediate influence on life today. Even marketing guru Seth Godin agrees. He says that if you want to motivate people to strive for a future-oriented goal, you actually need to figure out how to convert it into "how it feels right now." Enough said.
So Instead of dragging yourself to the gym because you want to lose weight, consider how moving makes you feel. For example, do you tend to feel an energy boost? Do you sleep better? Does your stress go down? Make those your reasons for exercise – and watch your desire to exercise increase. The irony is that when you start taking better care of yourself in order to feel better in the now, you'll set yourself up to better cultivate good health in the future.
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