Is overexercising making you fat? If you've taken my free weight loss class, then you understand that exercise does not drive weight loss. Many women over 35 believe they have to exercise to lose weight, but that is not true. It is a myth.
What many women try to do when losing weight is go from doing nothing to doing ALL THE THINGS. It's not uncommon for women to go from not exercising and paying attention to how they eat to exercising 7 days a week hard core and eating super restrictive, clean diets.
This extreme is what I call the pendulum swing and it's facilitated by diet conditioning. The extreme of going from being a "couch potato" to being an extremely clean, restrictive eater is the pendulum swing. We swing from extreme to extreme never realizing that the extreme approach sets you up to fail because no one can be perfect and neither of those extremes is healthy.
Many women over 35 I've coached over the years have been in the extreme of overexercising and eating super restrictive diets. Yet despite their best efforts and doing everything "right," they found themselves gaining weight, dealing with extreme hunger, low energy and hormone imbalances.
The hunger, low energy, hormone imbalances and weight gain were symptoms of a dysfunctional body. A body that doesn't feel safe and is out of balance. No matter how many or how few calories you eat, a body that feels stressed and out of balance will not lose weight.
For these women I've coached, exercise was creating the stress within their body and causing these symptoms. The weight gain, extreme hunger, low energy and hormone imbalances were a result of too much exercise.
The extreme of overtraining, not resting and recovering, overexercising and the added stress of being in perimenopause or menopause creates the perfect storm for weight gain, extreme hunger, low energy and hormone imbalances.
In this podcast episode, I explain in more details how overexercising affects women over 35 and the hormonal cascade that happens in the body that creates weight gain when the body is out of balance and too stressed. I also explain why exercise doesn't play as big of a role in weight loss as most women think.
In this Dish on Ditching Diets Podcast Episode 62, You Will Hear:
- How Overexercising Makes You Fat
- The % Exercise Plays in Weight Loss (hint - it's very small!)
- How Exercise Can Help You Lose Weight
- How Body Adapts to Exercise
- Type of Exercise That is Problematic for Women's Hormones
- Female Athlete Triad
- Hormonal Effect From Exercise That Creates Weight Gain
- Exercise IS Healthy, But Independent From Weight Loss
Listen To The Full Podcast Episode:
Links From This Episode
- Free Weight Loss Class: https://skinnyfitalicious.com/hormonal-weight-loss-class/
- Why Weight Loss Is Different for Women Over 35: https://skinnyfitalicious.com/why-weight-loss-is-harder-women-over-35/
- Hormonal Weight Loss: https://skinnyfitalicious.com/hormonal-weight-loss-coaching/
Overexercising Is Making You Fat Podcast Transcript
Hey friends – today we’re talking about exercise and why exercise doesn’t drive weight loss. If you have taken my free weight loss class, I share in that class how one of the 5 weight loss myths is that you have to exercise to lose weight. I debunk that myth in that free class, and I share a pie chart in the presentation of the % that exercise represents in the weight loss equation.
I’m going to give you a spoiler alert if you haven’t taken that class – which I’ll link for you in the show notes – it’s not very much. It’s only 5-10% of the weight loss equation. Yes, you heard me right. Exercise is only 5-10% of the weight loss equation.
Now I am not saying you should not exercise nor am I telling you that exercise isn’t healthy. On the contrary you should absolutely exercise for cardiovascular health and mental health. Exercise can also promote healthier habits with lifestyle and food.
Many who exercise tend to choose healthier foods. Not all, but many. However, if we are only looking through the lens of weight loss the hard truth is that exercise represents very little of the equation and honestly why I don’t focus that much on it with my clients or on this podcast.
My clients focus on NEAT – non-exercise thermogenesis activity which is a fancy way of saying just move your body. Most of them are just walking. That’s it. Many of my clients have lost weight without exercising or walking.
My client Martha who will be on the podcast soon she broke her foot one week after she started the program and couldn’t exercise yet, she lost inches. In fact, I think it’s a lot easier to manage what goes into your mouth when exercise isn’t part of the equation. I’ll explain more on that soon.
So, my clients are always in one of two camps. They either don’t exercise at all, or they exercise A LOT. Like A LOT. Almost like it’s their part time job.
Back in episode 55, I talked about the pendulum swing we do. We’re either couch potatoes or we’re doing everything hard core, extreme healthy eating and exercise. I see this with clients.
They sign up to start coaching and immediately they want to do ALL THE THINGS and all the things includes exercising as much as possible.
Well, just like I talked about in that episode. That drastic shift in your lifestyle simply doesn’t last long. You get really burnt out when you try to change your lifestyle from being a couch potato to exercising hours a day and trying to be a perfectly healthy eater who meal preps hours a week.
We are often impatient and not happy with our bodies so we go as drastic and as extreme as we can because in our minds, we think that’s going to get us to the results we want faster. It’s not!
It’s the fastest way to fail, give up and make your weight loss journey longer. You are setting yourself up to fail when you take that approach.
So, what a lot of chronic dieters do is swing like a pendulum back and forth from extreme to extreme. The extreme of being a couch potato to the extreme exerciser who’s cutting every calorie, cutting out carbs and fruit out of their diet and starving themselves to lose weight. Neither of those extremes are healthy.
Being in the extreme of being a couch potato isn’t healthy and being an extreme exerciser who cuts out a lot of foods and starves themselves isn’t healthy either. You need to find the middle group in between the two. If the goal is permanent weight loss, you must go slow.
That’s the only way your brain can adapt to the changes you’re making and make them permanent and it’s the only way you build a lasting lifestyle.
Now when it comes to exercise and weight loss specifically. Exercise can help you lose weight in the beginning if you are a complete couch potato by helping you get into a calorie deficit.
There’s are nuances and caveats to this of course, but in general couch potatoes get the best results initially when using exercise to lose weight.
The reason why is because weight loss is only ever achieved with a calorie deficit, so if you’re someone who’s doesn’t walk or move their body regularly the mere act of moving more is going to help you burn a few extra calories. A FEW being the key word and it will only be short term.
Over time, the body becomes more proficient with exercise like cardio, and you burn fewer and fewer calories as a result of it. So, let’ say you do the elliptical every day for 30 minutes.
In the beginning you may burn 350 calories (as an example), over time your body adapts to the activity, and you burn fewer and fewer calories doing the elliptical for the same amount of time.
So, in the beginning you were burning 350 calories now maybe you’re only burning 200 calories. This is true with cardio focused activity so swimming, biking, walking, stair climbing, running. All those cardio activities the body gets better at conserving energy to perform them, so you burn fewer and fewer calories doing them over time.
If you’re a couch potato, in the very beginning cardio exercise could be helpful to you but overtime it is a diminishing return, and my thought is we all live crazy busy lives.
Let’s focus time and effort on what really moves the dial for weight loss so that you don’t get burnt out and stop. If you’re a busy woman and your goal is weight loss, then focusing a lot of time and effort on exercise doesn’t yield a big return on your investment – meaning you’re not going to see significant weight loss just from exercising.
If you’re a more seasoned exerciser, let’s say you’ve been walking daily and swimming a few times a week for years and strength training. You won’t see weight loss just from doing those activities anymore because your body has already adapted to doing them and has figured out how to conserve energy doing them.
Notice here I was only speaking of just exercising. I didn’t talk about adjusting your food intake at all. I bring this up because I have a lot of women in consults who tell me how much they exercise and I’ll inquire about their food intake and their calories, and there aren’t paying attention to that.
They eat generally healthy but aren’t aware of their hunger signals or calories. They truly, when I speak to them, have been conditioned to believe that weight loss is about exercise. But it’s not! Remember I said it’s only 5-10% of the equation.
There are a few problems with exercise and how it affects how we eat and earlier I indicated I would talk about this. The first is intense exercise increases hunger.
Now for some people there is an initial feeling of not feeling hungry after exercising. I’m one of those people. I don’t get hungry right away. However, later in the day or even the next day or two or three my hunger signals kick in as a result of the exercise.
So, if I teach a cycle class which is intense cardio, I almost never notice an immediate change in my hunger. But there is an increase later on. Usually for me, it’s a day later. Most people don’t even realize the connection is there. So, they eat more food and then some, and now are no longer in a calorie deficit.
We also know from studies that people overestimate their calories burned during exercise and eat more or they think well, I exercised today, so I can eat more food, and then they overeat.
The other thing that happens with exercise is that it when we do much of it, too frequently, with too much intensity, we sit around more. There are studies that show this. Your body naturally slows you down – it doesn’t move as much because of the exercise. You’re more tired and your energy will be lower too. Again, this is with comes with too much frequency and intensity.
No think about this. If the goal during weight loss is to be in a consistent calorie deficit and you are doing a lot of high intensity exercise and you’re not aware of how exercise increases your hunger and how it slows down natural daily movement, then you may be eating more food to compensate for the exercise and you may longer be in a calorie deficit. Kind of defeats the purpose of exercise. You know?
It's not uncommon for me to see clients who are doing a lot of high intensity exercise when they begin working with me. Orange theory, Peleton, bootcamps, training for marathons, cross fit. They come to me with uncontrollable hunger and cravings, their energy is in the tank and they’re not losing weight.
It goes back to that pendulum swing I mentioned earlier. We’re either not doing anything, or we are doing WAY TOO MUCH. You must find the right balance with exercise, and I will tell you; your balance is going to be different from everyone else’s balance on the planet and your balance will also change as you age.
If in your early 30’s, you were running 5 miles a day. Your body when it’s 45 or 50 in perimenopause may not like that anymore. It is not uncommon for me to see women who are pushing their bodies with high frequency and high intensity exercise GAINING weight.
Why? Because of a hormone called cortisol which is a stress hormone. Exercise is stress on the body. It’s good stress, but your body doesn’t know the difference between you running 5 miles for fun or you running 5 miles because a bear is chasing you. To your nervous system, it perceives it as stress. It’s all stress.
Now think about your lifestyle and the lives most of us are living. Most of my clients are successful with great careers. They have children, grandchildren, spouses, some of them are caregivers.
Think about the stress of having a high performing job, the stress from kids and grandkids, the stress of spouses (yes – I know but let’s be honest we know relationships can be stressful), the stress of being a caregiver, the stress of life.
We are living these busy, stressed out lives where we go-go-go-go and then we add something like high frequency and high intensity exercise on top of an already stressed out body. And then we wonder why we can’t sleep well at night, we have no control around food and we can’t lose weight.
The female body is wired for reproduction, so it is more sensitive to stress than a male’s body. Now you’re a woman in perimenopause or menopause and your body is even MORE stress reactive. Why? Because of the changing hormones during this phase of life. I talked about that in episode 37.
You’ve got stress on stress on stress on stress. That’s the perfect recipe for weight gain or weight loss resistance. Oh yeah, chronic dieting is stress too. So, the more you cut carbs, cut calories and try all these programs out for size, the more stress you are putting on your metabolism. Your metabolism isn’t broken. It’s stressed out.
It’s no wonder so many women over 35 have trouble losing weight. Because they’re done so much chronic dieting and they are working against their body with too much frequency and too much intensity exercise.
Initially the result will be a high cortisol pattern and after a while you will see a low cortisol pattern. Neither one of those is what you want. You want the middle ground! Now cortisol begins to impact the gut because digestion isn’t a priority when you are stressed.
So, you produce less melatonin which is a hormone produced in the gut and now you don’t sleep well, and sleep and recovery is foundational to weight loss and building muscle. Then cortisol begins to impact the thyroid. Thyroid governs metabolism.
Can you see how we start to get into trouble when we focus too heavily on exercise and stress our bodies out? There’s a cascading hormonal effect here.
The fascinating thing about this is women will think I’m crazy when I bring this up. “My life has always been this way” “I’ve always been able to do this” is the common response I get.
The problem is your body doesn’t care. Our bodies can rebound off one stressful event. They are built to do that. The real problem is our lifestyles these days have us all thinking that all the stress we’ve gotten accustomed to is just normal.
But it’s NOT normal to your body and it takes years for that stress to accumulate to where it begins to show up and really have an impact you. And because during perimenopause and menopause the body is more stress sensitive, it tends to REALLY show up at this phase of life.
The female athlete triad is something that is well documented. You can Google this if you haven’t heard of it. It tells us that the female body when it has too little body fat or restrictive caloric intake combined with too much exercise there is a hormonal effect. We see this with female athletes all the time and it’s not healthy.
Women in this category can lose their menstrual cycles or can have very irregular menstrual cycles, they have lower bone density due to mineral loss making them higher risk for osteoporosis and stress fractures, they are extremely fatigued, have low energy and have a lot of hunger which they have conditioned themselves to severely limit or ignore. The hunger, fatigue and low energy is direct feedback from the body saying it’s too much. You need to back off.
The most unfortunate thing is I have and have had clients in this camp. They are severely restricting food intake, ignoring their body’s hunger signals, are very fatigued with low energy.
They don’t sleep well and are over exercising. When I have worked with these clients, I have worked with them to back down on their exercise. Rather exercise smarter, not harder and longer and rest and recover more.
When I have done this with clients and they have followed through with my advice, they were totally amazed at how much better then felt. Suddenly, they were sleeping better, their mood was better, they were in control of their hunger, their energy was better and eventually, they were able to lose weight.
I had a client several years ago with Hashimoto’s and she was exercising 3 hours a day. Doing Jitsu, running and weight training all in the same day. She was exercising so much she had no energy to do things with her kids.
She wasn’t eating very much food, was lacking complex carbohydrates to support her high activity level and she was gaining weight. She thought it was her Hashimoto’s causing this. The real problem was the extreme exercising.
When she backed way off on the exercise and started eating more, resting more, adding more complex carbohydrates in, she began to feel so much better and she eventually began losing weight. She was blown away that this routine she had been doing for years was the culprit. I thought it was healthy to exercise she told me.
Exercise is healthy until it becomes an addictive behavior and you’re not listening to your body.
All of this to say that you can exercise too much and there are consequences to exercising too much. And you can just as easily over exercise as you can overeat. There is a hormonal effect and the female body, is very sensitive to the stress from exercise.
Unfortunately, I do have clients in this camp. Some of them are trying to lose weight and finding it difficult to lose weight because they’re exercising so much. Some of them have lost weight previously and are in this extreme healthy eating and over exercising camp.
In my mind, they lost weight but all they did was swap overeating with overexercising. They never addressed the addictive behavior with the food. All they did was swap it with a new addictive behavior which was exercise. Yes, exercise can become an addiction.
Now even if you’re not someone who’s exercising too much, remember it’s very easy to overeat when we do high intensity exercise. It increases our hunger and remember hunger is driven from hormones leptin and ghrelin, or we overestimate how many calories burned during exercise and/or we move our bodies less after exercise because they’re too fatigued.
The thing about walking is that it doesn’t have the same effect on hunger and stress hormones as high intensity exercise does on the female body. I will say I have seen some ladies abuse walking though. They walk really fast and they’re walking 9-12 miles a day. That’s too much if your body is telling you, it’s hunger and tired.
Now this is not to say you should never do cardio. How much and what type of cardio really depends on the individual and how their body responds.
Strength training by the way, doesn’t have the same impact as cardio. Unless you’re doing bootcamp or Crossfit style strength trainings. Traditional strength training does not increase hunger and stress hormones the way that high intensity cardio exercise does.
It also helps you build muscle which more muscle mass means you will have a higher metabolic rate which means you will burn more calories at rest. You don’t burn more calories at rest from doing cardio focused exercise.
When the goal is weight loss, we want to be smarter about what we spend our time on and how we exercise. And as we age, we want to learn how to listen to the signals from our own bodies because as we age our bodies will change and you will have to change your approach to how you eat and exercise as you age.
I hope you can see from today’s podcast how exercise can really mess up and interfere with weight loss goals and how this belief that diet conditioning has taught us that we need to exercise for hours to lose weight is simply not true. In fact, it can have a lot of negative ramifications as I have shared with you today.
This is why it’s always helpful to work with an expert so they can ensure you’re achieving the right balance. The right balance with exercise, food, your lifestyle and mindset.
It all comes back to that B word. Balance. We can’t swing the pendulum so fiercely back and forth. I know that’s not sexy and it’s not what everyone wants to hear.
But the slow and steady path is the way. Killing yourself with exercise, sleeping very little and not fueling your body to what your body says it needs has a real consequence and I see it every day. I hope this helps illustrate this for you– that exercise does not drive weight loss.
There are very real and documented hormonal consequences to doing too much exercise. The type of exercise, the duration and frequency matters. Intense cardio will have a different impact than low impact cardio or strength training on different individuals.
The phase of life also matters. Your lifestyle and how much stress your nervous system perceives matters. And most importantly, your mindset matters. I have had clients in the past who have just wanted to push their bodies and refused to listen to what their bodies were telling them. Guess what?
They didn’t get the results they wanted. The ones who were open to changing and seeing what impact the change might have, they DID get results. The choice is always yours. I know for some women eating more and exercising less is a scary thing.
But here’s what I’ll say. You’re already scared, tired and feeling anxious over maintaining what you’re doing. You’re already living in daily fear. Instead of deciding your next step from a place of fear and asking yourself what’s going to make me less scared, ask yourself if I wasn’t scared what decision would I make?
If it were my child, what would be the right decision? You’ll likely find yourself making the decision you’re scared to make. You know deep down what you’re doing isn’t working or sustainable, so we can’t make decisions based on what’s going to make us feel less scared. That just keeps us stuck in fear.
So, to summarize. Exercise does not drive weight loss. It is a very small % of the weight loss equation. The food part is the largest part of the equation which is where you will get the BEST return on your investment.
Exercise is fantastic for you, and you should incorporate it into your lifestyle. BUT when weight loss is the goal, be careful with the type, frequency and intensity and pay attention to how it affects your hunger and energy in particular.
Ladies if you enjoyed this episode, please please please share this episode with other women. Take a screenshot and share it on your social media. I too commonly hear from women that they are focusing on exercise to lose weight or are over exercising. We need to get the word out that this is NOT the way. We have to find our balance! Thanks ladies – I’ll talk to you soon!