A new year can be a fresh start full of new beginnings. With the holidays behind us, turning the calendar to January feels like wiping the slate clean. For many, it seems like a great time to finally make changes to yourself and your life. New year, new you!
While any time of the year is the right time to make changes that make us happier and healthier, in January, this way of thinking manifests as New Year’s resolutions. 60% of people make resolutions, but only 8% of folks actually achieve their goals. Most people give up on their resolutions as early as mid-January, and the rest usually throw in the towel by the second week of February. These stats don’t stop us from trying though.
One of the most common resolutions is to exercise more. If you’re planning on upping your gym game come January, ask yourself why—because weight loss should not be your answer.
Exercise can contribute to weight loss, but it is not necessary to lose weight, nor is it the most productive way to do so. I am not telling you not to exercise. I am enthusiastically telling you the opposite; working out is great for your health, and the numbers on the scale don’t matter nearly as much as the physical and mental health benefits you receive from moving your body.
I’m also not going to provide weight loss tips. All bodies are different, and I trust you know your body better than I do. I want you to feel good, that’s all. I am telling you that if your goal is to increase how much you exercise, you should understand the reality of what you will—and won’t—get out of it.
Because exercise is perceived as hard, painful, and awful (it doesn’t have to be!), folks think they should get a reward for sweating. Not only did you sweat, but you remembered to pack your gym bag. You sacrificed an hour of sleep to get up for an early morning run. You almost passed out mid-burpee instead of eating chips while binge-watching Schitt’s Creek. People think the payoff should be obvious. Damnit, there should be an immediate visual reward for this agony! What better way to show off the work you did than to look slimmer and trimmer?
But that’s not how the body works, folks. And that’s okay, because the real payoffs from exercise are so much more meaningful and long-lasting than weight loss.
We burn calories three ways: (1) through our metabolism, (2) via the energy we expend to break down food, and (3) with physical activity. Physical activity does not need to be torturous. It can include gardening, walking, stretching, or pole dancing. I prefer intense, physically demanding workouts like hot yoga and CrossFit, but those are not for everyone and that is okay.
While more physical workouts can burn more calories and build muscles that burn a bit more energy at rest, our basal metabolic rate is the primary factor that determines how many calories we burn, accounting for 60-80% of our daily energy expenditure. No matter how hard we sweat, exercise only accounts for 10-30% of our daily calorie burn. The energy we use to break down our food is only about 10%. Exercise can help us maintain what we consider our personal healthy body weight, but it’s not enough on its own to promote weight loss.
In fact, in some ways, exercise can actually sabotage weight loss. We are hungrier after a workout so may eat more than we normally would had we not worked out. We might eat an extra slice of pizza or have another scoop of ice cream because we tell ourselves we burned a ton of extra calories at the gym.
First of all, go ahead and eat the pizza and the ice cream, but do it because they taste good. Food shouldn’t be a reward or a sacrifice. What’s more, in some ways, exercise can actually make us more sedentary. Once our workout is done for the day, folks seem to think all physical activity is done too. Instead of taking the stairs or an extra walk at work, people skip the chance to move. Also, when our bodies do slim down as a result of diet and exercise, our metabolisms do too. We hit a plateau and think adding more exercise will solve the problem. It won’t.
There are so many rewards to be gained from working out. Strong bones, lower risk of heart disease, better sleep, and enhanced sexual stamina are some of the physical benefits. One of the biggest rewards for me and so many others is an improved mood. When my anxiety kicks in, I feel better after moving. When my depression kicks in, the last thing I want to do is move, but I know it will help my state of mind. Exercise releases chemicals in our brain that are equivalent to what our brains get when we take SSRIs. Exercise is not a substitute for seeing a mental health care provider or for using medication, but it can make us feel better and improve our outlook on life.
Working out has been a key component in my sobriety. It relieves stress and increases endorphins and dopamine–all of which I sought when I was self-medicating with alcohol. Exercise also creates better thinking skills and a sense of pride.
It’s time to reframe why we join a Pilates class, take up jogging, or move a Peloton bike into the living room. It’s time to make movement about health and not body size. Our bodies and the way they respond to the movement we get out of them vary from person to person, but it is scientifically proven that exercise doesn’t help much when it comes to weight loss. 100% of calories come from food, but only 10-30% of calories are lost with physical activity each day.
Go ahead and sign up for the gym as part of your New Year’s resolution, but let health be your focus, not weight loss. Find exercise that you like, because moving your body in ways you love will keep you moving, and that is what makes us healthier. Healthier, not thinner. They’re not necessarily the same thing, and one is definitely more important than the other.
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