Why Exercise and Burning Calories Won’t Help You Lose Weight

I wrote this post for MindBodyGreen. Deep breaths and enjoy!

The veil has been lifted on the fat free craze (thank you Michael Pollan), fad diets are losing steam (bye bye South Beach Diet, hello natural foods), and now it’s time to tackle the exercise myth. Working out, sweating your body weight, pushing yourself, and burning calories, whether it’s at the gym or yoga studio, DOES NOT lead to weight loss. Pushing, burning, and sweating often actually leads to WEIGHT GAIN. Screech! What? Hold the phone, right?!

Let’s examine what you practice and what’s going on in your body and mind. Pushing yourself at any activity builds tension in your body, along with the associated stress cocktail in your brain. Tension in your mind leads to lots of tense habits and activities. Let’s be honest, does this internal dialogue sound familiar: “Man, this is tough, gritting my teeth, ugh, I hate my body, I hate where I am right now, I hate what I did last night, if only I could do this pose or spin faster or run faster, I could make up for it and achieve all my goals!” That type of dialogue causes stress. You start holding your breath, and a whole lot of not-so-nice stuff happens in the physiology of your body. Don’t worry. No judgments here. It’s internal dialogue, so no one can actually hear your self-deprecating thoughts. But you know they are there!

It’s ok. We should talk about it, because it’s a super common behavior, and no one is talking about it. If we do shed light on what’s going on in our minds and bodies when we’re exerting physical effort, we can begin to choose how we are, in a way that creates what we want. This will be a big step up from getting caught in the hamster wheel of making up for (or punishing ourselves for) unhealthy behavior, and the misinformation that tags along about calorie burning and fat blasting.

We get good at what we practice. If we practice responding to stress with aggression – whether it’s in the gym, on the track, or in the yoga studio – we get good at aggression. We’ll relate aggressively, work aggressively, eat aggressively, generally without noticing – because we’ve practiced it so much! We might burn some calories along the way, but no way it will ever match up to what we can eat and drink, long before we begin to notice how our bodies feel and what we need to be healthy.

Here’s the thing: if exercise doesn’t change how we eat for the better, it will never ever lead to weight loss and a healthy body. In particular, if our way of exercising is aggressive, pushing, forcing, we’ll just build tension and carry it through the rest of our lives. We’ll eat aggressively, mindlessly, without the self-connection that’s our best road to being healthy. And there’s no amount of fat-blasting and calorie-burning in our lives that ever comes close to correcting what the wrong foods can do to us.

Tension in the brain leads to tense habits. Eating for reward, emotional eating, and over-eating to “get through the tough workout” all come from tension in our minds and bodies, rather than ease. When you practice tense, you reinforce tense. If you love your form of exercise, whether it’s spinning, running, yoga, hiking, dancing, whatever, that enjoyment is causing a different cocktail of chemicals in your brain, that lead you in the direction of treating yourself well. Doing what you love leads you to happiness and good health. Activities that make you feel free, connected, calm and capable reinforce habits that keep creating the same feelings. Activities that make you feel anxious, stressed, and not good enough also lead to reinforcing habits. The activity itself doesn’t matter. What matters is how you feel about it. How you practice is most important.

Yoga is not the magic wonder drug, and I’m not yoga’s agent. I’m for everyone discovering ways to connect with themselves, and find the space to create their own best lives. I see plenty of people who walk into Strala and grit their teeth through the entire class, as if it’s one more task to get through. It’s so unnecessary. You can do hard things easily. It’s actually possible and everyone can do it. Life doesn’t have to be tense. Yoga doesn’t have to be tense. When you move with ease, whether you’re attempting a handstand, running 10 miles, negotiating a business deal, or talking with a friend, your brain has space to flow in creativity and intuition. Sounds like meditation? When you exist in ease, every moment in your life becomes meditative and space has a chance to enter. You have room to breathe, room to release tension, room to create yourself healthy and happy. When you’re in this space you begin to expand and see beyond each moment. You become yourself. You’re able to make good decisions, be in the zone, and allow room for synchronicity. Your life heads in the right direction when you give it space. When you squash it with tension, well, it gets squashed.

So what happens when things aren’t so healthy? When you move through the activities of your life tense, the brain has no space. You end up moving without understanding, seeing or feeling you. You find your way into tension-related activities, like over-eating, drinking alcohol, or yelling at a cab driver. It’s much nicer to feel expansive and connected to yourself. When you’re feeling this way, you are back to your natural state, happy and free. Sounds nice right? You can do it! We all can live in happiness and feeling good. It’s a practice of cultivating ease.

You can practice tense or you can practice with ease. Practice ease during challenging and simple movements alike. If you practice tense, say jumping into handstands and forcing yourself into poses that your body isn’t able to do easily (ease comes with practice!), you will wind up more tense than when you started. This leads to tense eating habits, most likely reward and over-eating habits. Of course it’s a practice. Getting to easy is a practice and probably isn’t always perfect. With yoga, and any other activity in life, we have the opportunity to observe without judgment, and then do something about it.

Of course physical activity is good for you. It can be fantastic for your mood, energy, range of motion, shape and tone of your body, breathing capabilities and more. Keep exercising! Just understand that – despite a large volume of persistent outdated information – exercise on its own has very little to do with weight loss. How you live has to do with weight loss. How you handle stress, how you practice calm connection to yourself, has to do with the life and health you’re able to create.

You are what you eat. Now we come down to what you are actually putting in your body. Food rules. Food is fuel, it shapes our body, it determines our health, our energy levels, and our liveliness. If your exercise isn’t helping you dial your eating habits to fresh, simple, natural, whole, inspired, colorful foods, lots of water, not so much on the booze, and easy on the caffeine, you might want to take a second look at how you feel about your exercise routine. Are you doing ____ (insert yoga, spinning, running, dancing, etc) to burn calories, or are you doing it to feel great in your body, improve your mood, and feel vibrant? Are you doing it to correct a bunch of mis-steps, or because you love it? When you find a routine that makes you feel vibrant, and offers up a stream of new challenges to explore and enjoy, simmer in that. It will have a very positive impact on your overall health, and your waist line.

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29 Responses to Why Exercise and Burning Calories Won’t Help You Lose Weight

  • dr mies said on 6-13-12 at 8:47 pm

    yes.. you nailed it, nothing to add there.
    To go into the flow is the best thing you can do for yourself.

  • Megan said on 6-13-12 at 9:54 pm

    Oh my goodness…you spoke to me with this blog. I was just discussing this with my yoga teacher this morning! I had gained a lot of weight over the past few years and I’ve recently been doing a yoga regimen 2 hrs a day 4 days a week, and I’ve been practicing tensely, trying to force myself into difficult poses that I used to do, and back into the shape I used to be. I started this to put me back in healthier mindset, and get me back to clean, healthy living, but my tense practice has just caused overeating, more stress, and some weight gain. This blog was truly inspiring and just what I needed to hear today. Thank you 🙂

  • This made a lot of sense to me. I would agree that what goes on in our heads has a lot to do with our overall health. I’m a runner, and right now my college team is training for cross country season. I’m already pretty beat up from track this spring, so coming home to 7mile workouts everyday all summer has not exactly been relaxing. I’ve been trying to make room and time for yoga, but I’m already so stressed about running that yoga can’t help me! Starting today, I’m going to relax on my run. I’m going to breathe deeply and thank God for these running legs! And then I’ll do some yoga!

  • Xanthe said on 6-19-12 at 10:53 pm

    Thankyou for this Tara. I love the way you speak truth and honesty in such a direct way. This is a perfect reminder for me to now get caught up in ticking the boxes. X

  • Xanthe said on 6-19-12 at 10:54 pm

    *not*. Not now obviously 😉

  • Yes! This post really resonates with me, hearing “ding! ding!ding!” all over the place as I read. The idea that our intention when exercising informs our experience and then also informs our reactions (such as reactionary eating, eating aggressively) seems so obvious and yet this is not how we are taught to think at all. Thank you for shedding new light on weight loss and on how we can all approach exercise in more positive way that will actually help us reach our goals.

  • Great post. I love reading and watching all your videos. It really inspire me.

  • KC Delacruz said on 6-22-12 at 8:08 pm

    Just got your book Tara! You are my yoga goddess! Big hugs from me your superfan!

    Thank you for this article. I so agree.

  • I really love you now Tara. You answered everything for me. 🙂 I wish you more blessings and success 🙂

  • what a fabulous article!
    i definitely learned this the hard way!
    after pushing myself all the way into stage three adrenal fatigue, i have slowly healed by taking it easy, resting & relaxing.
    it was so hard at first, but now i couldn’t even imagine putting my body through what i did again!
    i am all about my yin yoga, strolls in the sunshine & leisure hikes!

    thank you so much for sharing! 😀

  • Of course exercise without modifying what you eat won’t work all by itself. If you keep overeating, you will not lose weight. But exercise does indeed contribute to weight loss. It’s simple math. Burn more calories than you consume and you’ll lose weight. Regardless of your mood.

  • Bill Andersoot said on 6-28-12 at 8:23 pm

    I disagree. I walk for an hour or so every morning and I limit myself to 1350 calories a day. I’ve consistently lost around 2.5 to 3 pounds a week for the past 10 weeks. On the days when I don’t walk, I lose a little less. Exercise certainly does help you lose weight. Of course it does. This isn’t magic. 1 pound of fat = 3500 calories. When you exercise, you burn calories. When you burn more calories than you take in, you lose weight. It’s really pretty simple.

    I’m on a CRON diet, tracking my progress on cronometer dot com (I’m not affiliated with the site in any way) and I’m positive I’ll eat this way for the rest of my life. Not only am I losing weight, but I’m finally eating food that’s good for me, and I feel better than I ever have. Big bonus: I no longer feel hungry all the time.

    I love to walk. Even if I didn’t lose a pound, I’d still do it. But it IS helping me to lose weight.

  • Thank you for this post! I have been suffering anxiety lately, with things getting harder in the PhD program i am in.

    I love doing yoga but lately I found that sometimes I become tense during the practice to achieve a challenging pose as a way to compensate with things not going well at school.

    I am so used to instant responses with Facebook and all the social networks these days– it makes me become more impatient.

    I have been making a conscious effort to not tense while working and doing yoga. I think what works for me is to remind myself
    “Practice and all is coming!” and enjoy the practice!

  • Magdalena said on 9-02-12 at 11:36 pm

    Wonderful article, thank you Tara. You express what I feel about the thing. Namaste

  • You really got to the point of how exercise can be good and not good for our body…I really love that you discussed about getting aggressive at what you do and doing it while having fun. Tension is really one of my problems, I always push myself, that’s why I get stressed easily. I believe your opinion on how exercise can work better is a good motivator.

  • Airaam said on 9-23-12 at 1:56 am

    Aaahhh.. You.are.awesome!! Took all the stress away from my mind.. Which was recently killing me.. I love the way you speak.. Honest, lovely and pure! 🙂 😛
    assalamu-alaikum-wa-rehmatullah (may Allah SWT (god) bless you)

  • Starr said on 9-27-12 at 10:13 pm

    Beautiful way of description Tara. Thank you for sharing!=)

  • You have good points here and this will make a lot of weight watchers think whether or not they are doing it the right way. Tension leads to stress that may also result to mindless eating.

  • I agree with this post! It’s a mind over matter situation. There’s no use of enrolling into fitness facilities and you still break the rules of eating and exercise. You need self-discipline to overcome the unhealthy habits and follow the good one.

  • A.Smith said on 11-18-12 at 4:21 pm

    Over the past year, I had become infatuated with tracking every calorie in, every calorie burned and it has lead to stress! Finally, I unsubscribed to all the calorie tracking apps and sites and pushed the scale under my dresser. I’d rather listen to what my body says to do than be stressed about living in this body.

    As a result, I have lost weight (because I’ve gone down a pant size). I wear a cheap watch/pedometer I got from Walgreens. I live a very sedentary lifestyle so it’s important for me to see that I need to move around (the reason for the pedometer). If my steps are low, I get up and move around (clean the house, do laundry, jump rope, go for a walk, yoga). Because I am less stressed about my diet, I can now listen to my body for when it’s time to eat and when I eat, I try mostly to make my own food and incorporate more veggies. I feel much better. Less is many times more!

  • Genan131 said on 11-23-12 at 8:26 pm

    Weight added/lost = calories taken in – calories expended. I know lots of people who gorge themselves – in their 40s – who exercise a lot, and are very fit. Just do the math honestly and face the facts of your situation. For god’s sake, this stuff is no mystery.

  • Timothy Stratis said on 4-05-13 at 9:48 pm

    it is difficult to have a great beach body since it requires a lot of workout and dieting. .

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  • Leandra Sapnu said on 6-20-13 at 5:59 pm

    Exercise can help prevent excess weight gain or help maintain weight loss. When you engage in physical activity, you burn calories. The more intense the activity, the more calories you burn. You don’t need to set aside large chunks of time for exercise to reap weight-loss benefits. If you can’t do an actual workout, get more active throughout the day in simple ways.”*..

    Be well

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  • There is definately a great deal to know about this issue.
    I really like all of the points you have made.

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