Can You Lose Weight Without Exercising? (The Answer Might Surprise You!)
I'm going to tell you something that might shock you. Ready?
You do not have to workout to lose weight.
Wait....what?? I'm a personal trainer telling you that you do not have to workout to lose weight??
Yep, that is EXACTLY what I am saying. You do not have to workout to lose weight.
I know this might be shocking because so many of us have been taught to associate weight loss with exercise.
In fact, when we want to lose weight it's often the first solution we turn to. Many people's first thought when they want to lose weight is "I better start working out".
It almost never works.
Especially as women, we have been drilled with the idea that we must workout to burn calories so that we lose weight. It's so deeply ingrained in us that some clients actually get defensive when I tell them they don't have to workout.
But it's true. Weight loss is truly about diet & regulating hormones. It's not about sweat equity.
In fact, it's not uncommon to see people GAIN weight when they start working out. I've seen people train for marathons & gain weight. I've seen people train for triathlons and gain weight. I've seen people join Cross Fit and gain weight. I've seen people lift weights and gain weight.
Working out does not equal weight loss.
"But...it helps, right?"
Sometimes. But probably not for reasons most people think. It's not because you are "burning off" your food.
In fact, sometimes working out at the beginning of a weight loss journey can do more harm than good:
- It can cause you to feel overwhelmed. (It's helpful to focus on one thing at a time.)
- It can cause a disruption in your hormones so you feel hungrier. (This will go away once you get your diet on track and regulate your hormones but it takes some time.)
- It can cause you to feel you need to eat more to "fuel your workout" or to "refuel" after. (Often this is not necessary.)
- It can cause you to justify eating certain things, or eating more of certain things, because you worked out. (I worked out today so it's totally fine to eat this box of cookies.)
This can all can lead to confusion and unwanted results.
"So....don't workout then?".
I love to workout. I do it a lot. But not to lose weight or burn calories.
I do it because it's fun.
I do it because it makes me feel strong.
I do it because I like to feel healthy.
I do it as an example for my daughters.
I do it to tone & have muscle definition.
I do it to help prevent osteoporosis.
I do it as a way to socialize.
I do it as a way to have some time to myself.
I do it for therapy.
I do it because I can.
So, if your main goal is weight loss, here is what I recommend in the beginning of your journey:
- Workout only if you want to. Exercise because it makes you feel happy, strong & healthy.
- If you are already working out you can keep doing what you are doing or even take it down a notch as you adjust to a new diet protocol. Don't try to do more. It will most likely backfire.
- If you are not working out already it's totally fine. Give yourself some time to just focus on the diet part and when your ready, see recommendation #1.
- Workout to punish yourself.
- Workout to burn calories.
- Workout because you "messed up" your eating protocol.
- Workout because you think you "should".
If it's overwhelming at first allow yourself to just do what you can, when you can without any pressure. Walking and light yoga are great options when you are first getting started. (Here is a website that has some great free yoga workouts for beginners: Do Yoga With Me. Another great, free resource is Fitness Blender. They have many beginner workout options.)
As you lose the weight, re-calibrate your hormones, increase energy and start to feel better you can increase your workouts based on your fitness/physique goals & what feels right for you.
There is no magic workout. I say this all the time to my clients. The best workouts are the ones that you will actually do. So, have fun with this, take the pressure of "have to" off the table and decide what your reasons for working out are.
Still not convinced? Check out this great video called The Science Is In: Exercise Is Not The Best Way To Lose Weight.
The beginning stages of weight loss can be challenging.
This is because losing weight requires that we make changes. We must learn new information, practice new skills and implement new habits.
All of these changes can be hard, and it often leads to a feeling of overwhelm.
But, here’s the problem: overwhelm never helps. In fact, overwhelm is a goal killer.
Think about this, what do you do when you feel overwhelmed? Most likely, nothing. Overwhelm often leads to paralysis. We feel stuck, unsure of how to proceed.
Notice your thoughts when you feel overwhelmed. They might include things such as:
“I’m not sure what to do.”
“I’ll never learn all of this.”
“It’s too much!”
“I can’t get it done!”
“I’m too far behind.”
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“I’m so stressed!”
“There is too much to do.”
“There isn’t enough time.”
Notice how these thoughts make you feel. Most likely they don’t leave you feeling excited, inspired and motivated. In fact, they probably make you want to just grab the pint of ice cream and camp out on the couch binge-watching Netflix. (No? Just me?)
We often assume that overwhelm will go away when the circumstances change.
“It will be easier when I have more time.”
“It will be easier when I have more money.”
“It will be easier when things at work calm down.”
“It will be easier once it’s summer and school is out.”
“It will be easier once summer is over and the kids go back to school!” 😉
When we are waiting for something external to change, we take the power away from ourselves. How do we take the power back?
I want to offer you a powerful idea: overwhelm is a choice.
This doesn’t mean that the stresses in your life are not real. I’m not suggesting it’s “all in your head” or that you should just put on a fake smile and act like you have it all together when you are going through something tough.
What I am offering you is the idea that you can work on how you think about things in order to help yourself through it.
If your ultimate goal is to lose weight, you already know that there are certain actions you need to take consistently in order to get to your goal.
Actions start with an emotion. If I feel motivated, I will move forward, even if it’s hard. If I feel overwhelmed, I stay stuck, even if it’s simple.
We don’t have to wait for that motivation to come from something outside of us. Instead, we can simple work on how we are thinking in order to move past overwhelm and into motivation.
This is incredibly empowering. If you understand this and start to practice this, then you can create an endless source of inspiration for yourself, regardless of what is happening around you.
It starts with your thoughts. When you are feeling overwhelmed, notice what you are thinking. Then, decide to change it.
Here are some alternative thoughts you can think when you start to feel overwhelm:
“I’m strong and capable; I can do this.”
“I’ve got this!”
“I’m figuring this out.”
“I can do hard things.”
“One step at a time.”
“Any action I take is good.”
“There are lots of right paths.”
“I don’t get overwhelmed.”
“I only have to focus on this moment.”
“It’s all happening exactly as it should.”
“Life is bringing me everything I need to make this happen.”
“This is exciting!”
“I have so many good resources available to me.”
“This is part of the journey.”
“It’s an adventure!”
You might think, “Yeah, that sounds great, but isn’t it wishful thinking?”
This is where it gets fun. We don’t have to figure out which thought is “true”; we simply get to pick the thoughts that best serve us.
The thought “this is so hard” is just as true as “I can do this”. The question is, which one moves you towards your goal?
So, don’t let overwhelm kill your dreams. Don’t allow yourself to indulge in inaction. Instead, compassionately observe what you are thinking and then decide to pick thoughts that better serve you. Not only will this move you toward your goals, but you’ll feel amazing and have fun in the process.
WHAT IS HUNGER?
Hunger is a physiological request for energy.
Notice, the key word there is request. Your body wants energy & it can get it one of two ways.
One way is for you to eat something containing energy in the form of calories. This includes carbohydrates, fats & proteins.
The other way is to access energy internally by breaking down and using its own fat stores. This process is called lipolysis and it’s a natural (and wonderful) thing that our body is designed to do during times of fasting (whether it’s a 2 hour fast or a 2-week fast).
OUR BODY’S NATURAL BUFFET
Stored fat, found in “fat cells” called adipocytes & muscles, is used primarily a fuel source. When our body needs energy between meals it can break down fat & convert it to energy. The key is giving it a chance to do so.
When we are always feeding our bodies the minute we feel hunger (especially if that food is refined carbs, flour and/or sugar) our body never needs, or gets a chance, to access our stored fat. Not only do we not lose weight, we continue to gain.
Giving our body “breaks” from food and digesting allows it to focus its energy on other things (like healing) while it accesses stored fat for energy.
IT’S NORMAL (& HEALTHY) TO BE SCARED OF HUNGER
The physical symptoms of hunger can feel scary! And with good reason. They are uncomfortable on purpose. The desire to reduce them has kept us alive and allowed us to evolve as a species. If we did not feel the symptoms of hunger, we would not feel motivated to find food.
You might also have been taught some scary messages around hunger such as:
- If I don’t eat my blood sugar will drop
- I won’t be able to focus or get my work done
- My metabolism will slow down & my body will hold onto fat
- My body will “eat” muscle if I don’t feed it
IT’S OKAY (& BENEFICIAL) TO OBSERVE SOME HUNGER
The truth is that we are living in a time when we never have to feel hunger. We are surrounded by food and we can eat almost immediately whenever we start to feel the uncomfortable symptoms of hunger.
The problem is, if we do this it is very hard to lose weight. Not so much because we are consuming too many calories but because we are never giving our bodies the chance to “dine in” by accessing all the energy we already have on our bodies.
WHAT SHOULD I DO WHEN I FEEL HUNGRY?
So, some hunger is good and allows for the natural process of using our stored fat which in turn leads to weight loss.
But, it’s no fun to feel hungry. So, what do we do when it happens?
First, just observe it. Most of us respond to it so quickly that we never really allow ourselves to experience it. Embrace it with curiosity instead of fear. See if you can describe it as if you are explaining it to someone who has never felt hunger before.
Next, notice that it comes in waves. If you give your body a chance, it will realize that it needs to start burning fat for fuel and this will cause the hunger to decrease or go away completely for a bit.
Drink something. Water, tea, coffee, seltzer water, anything that does not contain calories is fine. Sometimes this will do the trick and reduce the feelings of hunger.
Finally, if the hunger persists and you decide you want to eat outside of a planned meal time, try a low carb snack such as a handful of nuts, a spoonful of natural nut butter or a few ounces of cheese. This will curb the hunger without raising blood sugar.
OVER-HUNGER vs. NORMAL HUNGER
When you first start your weight loss journey your body is most likely unbalanced hormonally. This means that you might feel hunger quite often as you learn how to regulate and rebalance your hormones and shift your body into a state called fat adaptation.
Fat adaptation means that your body can more easily shift into a fat burning state between meals. This happens when we stabilize hormones such as insulin, leptin (fullness hormone) and ghrelin (hunger hormone).
Be patient with this this process. It’s normal to feel a bit “off” as your body is going through a time of detoxing and rebalancing. As you eat more unprocessed, whole foods your hormone levels will regulate and you’ll notice less hunger, more energy & increased fat loss.
PHYSIOLOGICAL HUNGER vs. PSYCHOLOGICAL HUNGER
Physiological hunger cues include things such as stomach growling or rumbling, an empty feeling in the stomach, stomach “pangs” and in some cases light nausea or light-headiness.
Psychological hunger, on the other hand, is craving a specific food (usually sugar or refined carbohydrates) regardless of whether we need sustenance. In fact, you might be quite full and still experience psychological hunger.
Psychological hunger is often triggered by negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, fear, or boredom. (Although it’s important to note that positive emotions such as happiness, excitement & relief can also trigger psychological hunger for some.)
Why do we crave certain foods when we experience these emotions? Because they are concentrated forms of substances that give us a large release of dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is brain chemical that makes us feel good. Often, we crave foods because this dopamine hit gives us temporary relief from negative emotions that we don’t want to experience or are not sure how to handle.
It’s important to note that this might all be happening on a very subconscious level. Part of reversing this is to simply be aware and observe what is happening with compassionate curiosity instead of judgement.
HUNGER vs. STARVATION
Let me be clear that while some hunger is okay, and even necessary for weight loss, we are not trying to starve ourselves. Starving ourselves is when we do not give our body the necessary macronutrients (carbs, fats & proteins) and/or micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) it needs to function properly.
It’s very important that you are planning and eating nutritious meals regularly. You want to make sure that your body understands that it is going to get all the fuel & nutrients that it needs to function. Denying yourself food or eating only very small amounts over a long period of time can result in weight loss but it will also result in great stress and very negative long-term consequences to your body. This is a form of disordered eating, not healthy eating.
While we don’t want to fear hunger, we certainly don’t want to fear food or eating either!
THE HUNGER SCALE
Use the hunger scale below to monitor your hunger levels. You want to manage your hunger by eating when you feel hunger between a -2 and a -4. Stop eating when your hunger is between a positive 2 and 4.
Keep in mind in takes the brain about 20 minutes to realize the stomach is full. It’s important to eat slowly and mindfully. Allow your brain to “catch up” to your stomach.
You can always go back and eat more. You can’t undo overeating once it’s done.