In our society’s never-ending quest to lose weight, many of us begrudgingly hit the gym in the name of dropping pounds. We're taught to exercise when we’re feeling guilty about how much we ate, or to fit into a dress two sizes too small in a matter of weeks.
While exercising regularly is a great idea for a number of reasons, doing so with the goal of weight loss may not exactly pay off (and isn't a healthy way to live our lives). By running on a treadmill or pedaling away on a stationary bike for 45 minutes a day, the hope is that we’ll burn more calories than we eat, resulting in lost pounds. Yet multiple studies have shown that this formula doesn’t always work very well, including a 2019 study which showed that some may eat more when we exercise, which cancels out our weight loss efforts. Even worse, many of our efforts around exercise end up being wrapped up in shame—which is bad, considering exercise has tremendous mental and physical health benefits that have nothing to do with losing weight.
With so much science backing up the fact that working out and weight loss aren’t as correlated as we thought—and the fact that many of us are miserable when we exercise for the sole purpose of losing weight—it doesn’t seem like we’re doing ourselves any favors by keeping exercise in the weight loss conversation at all. But how can we reframe the narrative around exercise to turn it into something that brings joy, rather than dread, to our lives? Here’s what the experts have to say.
The power of turning exercise into a choice.
Exercising to get stronger, beat stress, sleep better? You may not necessarily exercise more, according to Thea Gallagher, Psy.D. and Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Penn Medicine, but you will feel happier about it. “When you’re not exercising for weight loss, it feels like less of a chore, and more of a choice,” she says. “I find that it’s always better to focus on doing things because you want to, and the mental health benefits [associated with exercise] are usually more positive than shape and weight change.”
Meditation expert, yogi, and KAIT app founder Kait Hurley adds that if weight loss motivates people to start exercising in the first place, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—but the danger arises when people let how their body looks or a number on a scale define them and their worth. She says that if they must focus on something physical about exercise, it’s better to focus on how exercise makes the body stronger.
“Have you ever committed to moving for a few weeks and noticed more muscle definition? Or maybe you've noticed it's just easier to do everyday things—like walk up the stairs or lift a suitcase into the overhead compartment on an airplane,” she says. “While building strength and stamina isn't the same as weight loss, enough people have seen the physical changes within themselves and their friends. When we see a desired result, our brains are wired to go for it and try again and again.”
To “fix” your relationship with exercise, set a goal that isn’t correlated with weight loss.
While weight loss may carry some motivation, it can’t be the only motivation—especially because you likely won’t lose weight through exercise alone. So if you’re looking to “fix” your relationship with exercise and want to start doing it more, make sure you go into it with a goal that’s not related to weight loss at all.
“Try setting goals of mastery over physical feats, like being able to do a push-up for the first time, or running three miles without stopping,” says trainer and nutrition coach Minna Lee. “This really reinforces our sense of accomplishment, confidence, and capabilities—all of which lead to a healthier state of mind.”
And if you’re all about self-care, great: Lee suggests thinking of exercise as an act of taking care of yourself. “It’s about showing up for yourself and declaring that your health is deserving of care.”
And while you’re at it, try eliminating expectations. “Stop telling yourself that you hate exercise, that you aren't good at it, that you just aren't athletic,” says Lee. “Whatever story you’re telling yourself, release it. Be open to a new experience and relationship with exercise and approaching it in a new way, rather than relegating yourself to patterns or expectations of the past.”
Martin CK, Johnson WD, Myers CA, et al. Effect of different doses of supervised exercise on food intake, metabolism, and non-exercise physical activity: the E-MECHANIC randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2019;110(3):583-592. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqz054
Harvard Health Publishing. Simple math equals easy weight loss. Updated March 30, 2021.