- It's commonly believed that in order for your workouts to be effective, you need to be seeing concrete changes: increases in strength or muscle size, decreases in bodyweight, improvements in running time, etc.
- Losing weight isn't necessarily going to help with athletic performance or long term health.
- One overlooked fact is that even if nothing is happening, exercise is preventing age-related decline in fitness. This means that even if you're seeing 0 results, exercising is better than not exercising.
- Long term, maintaining existing fitness is much more important than building higher levels of fitness.
One of the most common misconceptions in fitness is that getting in shape has to be about losing weight. We’re often expected to think that skinny bodies are good bodies, and that good performance goes hand in hand with weight loss.
The reality is that many of the adaptations that our bodies develop in response to exercise can (and usually do) happen in the absence of any changes in our overall weight.
Cardiovascular exercise strengthens the heart, improves circulation and energy management, and burns calories. While the burning of calories can lead to weight loss, this isn’t necessary to reap the other benefits of cardio.
Weight training builds muscle and strength. Less well known is that weight training also leads to stronger bones, more stable joints, stiffer tendons, better insulin management, greater flexibility, and more. Building additional muscle (or maintaining existing muscle) results in a higher metabolism over time - this burns calories and can lead to weight loss, but weight loss isn’t necessary to reap these other benefits.
There are other, less tangible benefits to many kinds of exercise as well - better overall health and disease resistance, better mental health, better control over and awareness of your body, its physical and mental needs, and how it moves.
Losing weight reduces the risk of heart disease and some metabolic disorders. However, the desire to do so must be balanced against the degree to which dieting and exercise, if taken to excess, can cause harm.
Too much exercise or too strict of a diet can result in injury, poor recovery, long term metabolic and psychological disturbances, and worse overall health. I would argue that this means that the benefits of losing weight are not always worth it, particularly if you're not working with a good plan.
Unfortunately, telling a good plan from a bad one is a skill in its own right, and it's quite easy to fall for bad plans as a beginner. There are plenty of garbage "lose weight quick" schemes out there, looking to prey on you.
Instead of aiming specifically to lose weight, it's often better to focus on developing a long-term habit first. Later, you can decide to lose weight or not.
There is one often unnoticed and unmentioned benefit of exercise that I think hasn’t been given enough attention up until now: that even if you aren't seeing any results from exercise, you're still stabilizing your long term level of health and fitness.
As we age, our metabolisms steadily decrease. This is due to a variety of factors. We have less growing left to do after puberty, and after we pass through the prime of our lives, we typically lose a little bit of muscle every year due to age-related sarcopenia (muscle loss). Since muscle is metabolically active, this typically means that our metabolisms decrease as well.
This explains why many of us gain weight as we age - because we don’t change our eating habits. If I were to eat 2000 cal/day at the age of 18, when my metabolism is high, I probably wouldn’t gain weight. But, with 2-3 decades of age related muscle loss under my belt, the same 2000 calorie diet would lead to consistent weight gain.
One way to counteract this is simply to be adaptive and change our eating habits as we age. If I eat 2000 cal/day at the age of 18 and just 1500/day at the age of 48, I might be doing okay for myself. At the same time, habits are - well, habits. They’re addictive. We get used to doing things a certain way, and this makes us resistant to change. Unless some outside force breaks us out of the track we’re in, the tendency is to keep doing the same thing.
We may become psychologically reliant on comfort foods. We may be used to certain hunger levels. We might have a lot of added calories from partying or work events. Whatever the case, it’s very common that we don’t actually eat appropriately less as our metabolisms slow.
Exercise has a powerful ability to stabilize your bodyweight. Even if you’re not losing weight, you are preventing gain over time. Building muscle offsets the natural decrease of your metabolism. Having a higher base metabolism means that this gradual decrease has a smaller relative impact - if your metabolism goes from 3000 to 2500, this is a much smaller relative drop (1/6th) than from 1500 to 1000 (1/3rd).
The cool thing about exercise, even if you’re not gaining strength or muscle, is that at the very least it’s preventing you from losing strength or muscle. In the same fashion, a regular exercise habit will maintain strength and movement quality well into your later years, so that you’re not only living a longer life, but also a higher quality one. The concept of “self-efficacy” - your confidence in your ability to be self sufficient - is an important one as you age.
I want to simply hammer in the point that even if you aren’t losing weight, even if you aren’t getting bigger or stronger, even if nothing seems to be happening, exercising is better from a long term health perspective than not exercising - because otherwise, the natural trend is to lose general fitness over time, particularly as you get older.
Many trainees achieve roughly their potential as an exerciser in about 10-15 years of solid training. This potential may or may not be enough to be an effective athlete, but at that point maintenance, rather than pushing your limits further, becomes a much greater focus. Pushing your limits further risks injury and other disturbances - but maintenance means that you can keep that same, relatively high level of proficiency for many years.
For an example, let's imagine a powerlifter who wants to be as strong as possible to compete in powerlifting competitions. Let's say that our powerlifter, at the age of 25 and bodyweight of 200lbs, has a raw squat of 500lbs - enough to be considered "strong" compared to the average person, and definitely an impressive lifter, but probably not enough to win national level competitions and definitely not enough to set any world records.
Now lets say that this powerlifter has been training for about 8 years. He's got a bit of growing left to do, but not too much. He still wants to achieve every ounce of his potential, so he continues to push. This requires long hours at the gym, carefully ordering his lifestyle around training and competition dates, and lots of soreness. He also risks injury, but he considers this worth it.
Let's say that over 5 more years, he manages to put about 30lbs onto his squat, for a total of 530lbs. This is an impressive improvement, but he put a lot of work into it for a very small total benefit. At times, he pushed hard and saw no real changes. Other times, he had to deal with injuries. In the end, he improved, but the victory might not feel worth it.
Now that our guy is 30, he decides he's not going to seriously compete anymore. He's feeling it more than he used to. So, he puts on the brakes, slows things down, and trains a bit less hard. Since it requires less training to maintain existing fitness than to build greater fitness, he doesn't have to spend nearly as much time in the gym. But, he keeps at it.
His strength drops a little bit. Maybe his squat is now 485 or so instead of 530, but he feels good about it. This is a level he can easily maintain. He keeps at it for 10 years, 20 years - now, at the age of 50, he still has a 485lb squat, or maybe something a little bit less than that. In fact, this is actually more impressive than his previous showing, not to mention that he's essentially given the middle finger to 20 years of expected, age-related decline.
Of course, time comes for us all, in the end. Even consistently training masters athletes tend to lose about 50% of their ability by age 80. However, as that study notes, even a 50% reduction in overall ability (our example powerlifter going from a 530lb squat to a 265lb squat at 80 years of age) still leaves our grandpa powerlifter as the strongest and most badass grandpa around. Hell, I know 20 year olds who can't squat 225lbs with good form - myself included, since I didn't learn how to squat properly until I was 22.
From the perspective of an elite athlete, our powerlifter has been steadily failing year after year to improve his squat, and has in fact been going backwards. From the perspective of overall health, however, he's been absolutely knocking it out of the park, because he stuck with his exercise habit and maintained a high level of ability, despite age-related decline, well into his later years.
I have always recommended a slow and steady approach - focus on adherence, habit, and long-term enjoyment over aesthetic goals and short-term thinking. What matters is more that you find something sustainable and you stick to it, than that you have the perfect program or attempt to stick to some arbitrarily difficult exercise strategy. Even if you fail to see positive results from exercise, you're still succeeding.
- Detraining, Retraining, And Not Sitting On Your Ass
- Training VS Maintenance
- Periodization For Beginners
- The Beginner's Guide To Lifting Weights
- The Pareto Principle And Fitness
Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day. Or maybe a well-rounded beginners program for those looking to build strength, muscle, and endurance? Check out my other free ebook, GAINS.