Benefits of Exercise That Aren’t Weight Loss

This morning as I prepared to head out for my run I started thinking about how every few months friends of mine discover exercise and put on a large show of posting every day about how hard they’re exercising and how far they have to go to their goal – be it weight loss, a certain distance run or biked or rowed, or something else. They charge hard for a few weeks or months and then I never hear about it again, until the next time they rediscover exercise.

Meanwhile I’ve been back here quietly exercising every day all along. There’s not much excitement or glory in it so I almost never post on social media about my workouts. How boring would that be? “Did my workout again today, just like yesterday and the day before and the day before.” And yet what I’m doing is what I hear people say they’d like to emulate – getting regular exercise. Why is it so hard to maintain year after year?

One of my theories is that people focus too hard on the weight-loss benefits of exercise, and that is not sustainable. There are basically two ways it can go when your only reason for exercising is weight loss:

  1. You reach your goal, and stop exercising. Not right away, of course, but over time skipping workouts seems fine because, hey, I reached my goal I should get to relax now! And that’s a slippery slope that leads to getting out of the habit and one day realizing you don’t exercise anymore and haven’t in months or years.
  2. Exercising doesn’t result in weight loss, so you give it up. If you started exercising, but didn’t change your diet, this is a very likely scenario. Losing weight is about 80% intake and maybe 20% exercise. If all you did was start running on the elliptical 20 minutes a day, but only lost 5 pounds before it stopped coming off, you’d probably stop bothering because it wasn’t giving you the results you were looking for.

In order to keep at it over time, one needs to come to an appreciation of the benefits of exercise apart from weight loss. That’s how I get my body out of bed on a Sunday and run 4 miles even when I don’t particularly want to. I’m long past exercising to lose weight – at my age I’m exercising to keep my weight stable and for the other benefits, such as:

My own personal top reason is pain management – my body hurts less when I exercise regularly. I consider exercise to be my regular talisman against the aches and pains of aging. Like brushing my teeth morning and night, it’s just something I need to get done so I can get on with my day. The other benefits are a nice bonus. What are your reasons for exercising?

Brain Games

I’ve noticed something interesting going on in my brain. It has to do with the scale. You guys know I have a fraught relationship with the scale. I try to get on it as little as possible. In fact, I haven’t been on it since November. I am trying to learn to maintain and manage my weight by eating healthy and exercising. I don’t want to spend my whole life on a perpetual cycle of weight gain followed by fast loss through a program. I want to eat naturally, not shakes and pre-packaged foods I buy from a weight-loss system.

What’s weird is that I’ve been doing this since 2003, and I still feel like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I still feel like I have no idea how to lose weight. I have lots of friends who know exactly what you should do to lose weight and will happily expound at length on The Answer for Weight Loss. It is, of course, whatever worked for them. The further I get with this whole thing the less I know for sure.

Anyway, the brain thing.

I try not to weigh myself too often, usually because I just can’t bear it. I don’t want to be on the constant merry-go-round of hope, fear, disappointment, elation…it’s too much. Just too much. I just want to live a quiet, maintained life with my weight. So I do my exercise – 40-60 minutes of vigorous, breathing-hard, sweating, red-faced, hard exercise 5-6 days a week. And I watch my intake – lots of fruits and veggies, portions that aren’t too big, the occasional indulgence (but not too much). And I don’t get on the scale until my brain freaks out.

That’s what happens. I go for a few months and then my brain freaks out and convinces me that I’m DOING IT ALL WRONG and I’m clearly enjoying food too much, my eating is out of control, I must have gained tons of weight enjoying myself and I AM A FAILURE. My brain completely freaks out. I get depressed because I suck at this and I’m gaining weight and failing and all my exercise is for nothing because I must have gained 10 pounds since the last time I got on the scale.

And my brain starts making me notice things I hadn’t before, which are a sure sign that I’ve gained a ton of weight. Suddenly my hips are present to me in a way they weren’t before. My belly looks bloated. My legs feel sluggish and large. Clearly I’ve failed and am gaining weight and I need to get control of all this before I’m back up to my highest weight ever. I moan about how bad I’ve been and  how much weight I must have gained and, always, my husband says, “You look the same to me. Are you sure you’ve gained weight, or are you just guessing?”

Darling. I’m just guessing. I can’t face the scale so I don’t, I just guess that things are bad because my brain is telling me I’m a failure.

So after a few days or weeks of this I decide it’s time to Take Things In Hand. I need to get on the scale, get a handle on just how bad things have become, and start working on losing whatever huge amount of weight I’ve gained since I’ve been enjoying food and out of control. So this morning, after weeks of my brain convincing me I’d gained 10-20 pounds over the holidays I gave up and got on the scale so I could quantify the problem in order to begin working on it.

Up a half pound since the last time I weighed in November. That’s within regular fluctuation range. I am maintaining, my weight is extremely stable. Everything is going fine, I haven’t gained anything over the holidays, my system is working. It’s my brain that’s disordered.

I need a better system for brain management.

Shoevolution

I’ve been running since 2002, I think. In all that time, I’ve been almost exclusively loyal to Asics running shoes. I think I tried some Brooks back in 2006 once and didn’t like them, and I may have tried one other brand, but I always came back to Asics.

But something happened recently. Last year or so I bought my usual Cumulus model running shoe and it felt…cheap and thin. The padding was thin and it felt like the pavement was punching me in the sole with every stride. I just kept running in them, though, because I’m a very accepting person, and I just thought, “Oh that’s how running is for me now. Ok.”

The next time I was ready to buy running shoes, I read up online reviews, and decided to level up to the Asics Nimbus line, which is touted as having more padding. “Great,” I thought, “more padding sounds good since the last ones didn’t feel much padded at all.” Uh uh. Yes the new shoes had lots of padding, but it was all give and no spring. It felt like the shoes were swallowing up my momentum with every step. Squish. Squish. I powered on though – “Oh that’s how running is now. Ok.” Plus I’d spent over $100 on these shoes so what was I going to do? Wear them out, is what I did.

But this time, just last month, when those momentum-dampening Asics wore out I thought maybe I would try something new. I don’t know what’s going on with Asics, but I’m pretty sure they’ve lost a loyal customer.

So I read up online reviews on running shoes, I visited my local running store (they were “out of shoes” in my size when I went in so that was a waste of time, they’ve lost my business), then I bought online. Based on reviews, I bought a pair of Brooks Ghost 9s. They get good marks for people with my specifics (position, padding, distances), and the Asics – both lines I’d recently worn – no longer do.

I got them in the mail last week, laced them up, took them for a spin with excitement building and…found that there was a persistent ache in the outer edge of my right foot for the first mile or two. I noted the information, then ignored it because everything else about the shoe was perfect – padding and spring were aces! I laced them up again the next day with a hope it was just my feet getting used to the  new shoes.

Nope. Same pain on day two, getting more painful not less. I was distraught. I’d spent $120 on these shoes and they were hurting me! As a last-ditch effort I went to the bricks-and-mortar location of the running store I’d bought them from and asked if there was anything we could do, knowing that I’d already worn them on two runs and wasn’t going to be getting my money back.

They put me through the full fitting experience (walking on a treadmill, standing on a sensor pad, sizing, etc.) and determined that the shoes I had should be the right ones for me. So they made me some custom insoles by heating up insole blanks and having me stand on a special squishy machine on them. I was dubious that such a simple solution would solve my pain problem, but willing to give it a try.

This morning I took my Brooks Ghost 9s out for a spin with my new custom insoles and…no pain. I’m so happy now! Custom insoles can make a huge difference! I had no idea until today.

Commitment for the New Year: Journaling

It’s a brand new year. Are you doing the “new year, new me” thing? I’m not. I’ve got a pretty good lifestyle for supporting a stable weight. I exercise 40-60 minutes 5-6 days a week, and I follow my normal eating templates. One thing that did get a little out of control over the holidays this time was festive eating. I felt a bit out of control sometimes, and as a result my body felt bad. It’s an immediate feedback loop – when I eat too much or too poorly, right away I feel logy, tired, overstuffed, and nauseated.

So I’ve decided to make a change now that the holidays are over. I want to start feeling in control again and stop feeling regrets and bloated. Dropping a few pounds wouldn’t hurt me either. I’m only making one change, but its the most powerful tool I have in my arsenal. If you, too, want to see some changes, tighten up your habits, or drop a few pounds, but you don’t want to drastically overhaul your entire life, I commend it to you as well.  Instead of going on a crash diet, signing up at a gym / exercising furiously for a few weeks, or starving yourself, I have only one recommendation:

Start journaling your food intake.

That’s it. Recordkeeping/journaling is the most powerful way I know to change your habits. The first thing you need if you want to make a change is to know what you’re already doing. What are you eating now? How will you know what to change if you don’t know what you’re doing? The second thing journaling will do is a neat psychological trick – if you have to write down everything you eat, you may adjust what you eat to make your records look better. It’s a little hard to have to write down 600 calories worth of cupcake if you know you’re trying to improve your health.

So that’s my New Year’s program and suggestion: Write down what you eat at the time that you eat it (no “saving up” and writing it all down at the end of the day – that’s cheating and it won’t work), and an approximate calorie count. Every day. After a few days, you’ll have a good idea what you’re eating and where you might substitute some fruits and veggies or other healthier options, but first just start with the journaling. That’s not much to ask, right?

If you aren’t sure on the calories, there are tons of websites where you can look up nutrition info. Use an app, use a pen and paper, whatever works for you, but give it a try. It’s the best tool I know. I’m doing it too, because I know it works.