Don’t Let the Scale Hijack Your Exercise Plans

You step on the bathroom scale. For a split second – before the verdict registers – you think the number has to be lower than the last time you weighed in. It’s not. Your next thought: Why am I exercising?

OK, whether that’s your next thought, for many who are overweight or obese, not shedding pounds is demoralizing, a reason often cited for giving up activity before a new routine has had time to reshape body and mind.

“I think this is a public perception problem. People view exercise as a means of weight loss, and when it’s not inducing that change, they’re like, ‘forget it,’” says Pete Bodary, clinical assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “That’s a huge problem because exercise has considerable benefit. There’s so much evidence that exercise has benefit at all weight classes [for people of] all different sizes and shapes.”

Bodary tries to drive home those benefits – from lowering cardiovascular risk to improving brain health– including with his students. It’s not simply an educational exercise, but a pragmatic endeavor. That’s because while the physical difficulty often associated with exercise, especially after a period of inactivity, can undermine the best-laid plans to get back in the game, for some, the bathroom weigh-in can be just as much of a stumbling block.

“In so many cases, the primary goal is, ‘What’s going to happen on the scale?’” Bodary says. “I think that’s another place where we really struggle to keep people active. Because when the scale is not telling them what they want to see, then they say it’s not worth this effort, it’s not worth my time, and I think from a health perspective, that’s absolutely not true.”

One straightforward yet difficult-to-fix problem is that we measure what’s easiest to measure, says Joseph Ciccolo, assistant professor of applied exercise physiology at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City. Like checking our weight on the bathroom scale.

A more dynamic measure of how exercise might be bringing about physical change in you for the better, however, is body composition, Ciccolo says. Flex in the mirror, and you might see what he’s talking about. “If muscles start to get tighter and grow, you can definitely feel that,” he says.

Changes aren’t always readily apparent, though. So, Ciccolo says a person may not necessarily be losing weight while building muscle tone, and get the mistaken impression they’re not making progress, even if their overall health is improving,

However, getting a firm handle on an individual’s body composition – such as a lean body mass, or muscle-to-fat ratio – requires sophisticated technology, he says, such as a DEXA, or duel-energy X-ray absorptiometry scan that also looks at bone density.

Ciccolo says one might access such technology through a university or health care-based program. Gyms, too, and certified fitness trainers may have access to reliable means of testing body composition. He says a BOD POD system, which measures body volume and weight, and bioelectrical impedance analysis, which uses electrodes to circulate a small electrical current to detect fat and muscle, also offer reliable ways to measure body composition.

But other systems used to determine body composition tend to be more variable, he says, making it hard to hone in on actual progress. “This is the problem,” Ciccolo says. “If somebody could come up with a really good, accurate, validated, home-based body composition scale, then they’d make a lot of money.”

In the meantime, experts say it’s important to take stock of the ways exercise can improve overall health and wellness, whether we measure them or not. Those range from potentially lowering blood pressure and reducing risk of heart disease to improving mental health. “Self-esteem, mood, reductions in what would be depression or anxiety, all those things can [improve],” Ciccolo says.

Amid the continuing obesity epidemic in the U.S., the benefits of losing pounds – for those who aren’t at a healthy weight – remain dramatic. In addition to lowering the risk of heart attack and stroke, exercise can alleviate joint stress, which can make it tough to move in the first place and increase the chances of arthritis. Even modest weight reduction of 5 to 10 percent can lower the risk of obesity-related chronic diseases, and improve measures such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels, according to federal health agencies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says evidence shows people who lose weight gradually and steadily, generally shedding 1 to 2 pounds per week, are more successful in keeping it off.

Concerns, then, about a fixation on the scale, experts say, aren’t a reflection of the unimportance of weight loss. Rather, the aim is to address a more practical quandary – to keep short-term frustrations with the numbers on a scale from torpedoing efforts to be physically active – by highlighting the critical role exercise plays in improving wellness, starting at any weight. “In general, there’s so much evidence to support that our activity is important to our longevity and certainly to our quality of life at all BMIs, at all body weights,” Bodary says.

Research also shows physical activity can affect vascular health, an area Bodary has studied. “Certainly exercise benefits the health of those blood vessels,” he says, adding that it appears to reduce or slow the likelihood of developing lesions seen in atherosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis can put a person at risk for cardiovascular complications such has heart attack and stroke.

Ciccolo says it’s important for people to understand their primary motivation for exercise, including if that’s weight loss, and to look closely at the reasons they’re not achieving set objectives.

That means getting back to the basics, which are often neglected, including eating healthfully, drinking plenty of water and getting ample sleep. Bodary adds that there’s a tendency to compensate for more activity by consuming additional calories; watching what and how much you eat remains instrumental in losing weight.

Work with a properly trained fitness or health professional – such as a professional with certification through ACE, the National Academy of Sports Medicine or the American College of Sports Medicine – to develop an activity program that will help you achieve your objectives if you’re uncertain where to start. “You want to make sure your exercise program is well-matched to you. That’s going to help you meet your goals,” Ciccolo says, noting that it’s important to lift weights in addition to cardio. “Muscle burns calories.”

Some recent research points to the possibility that high-intensity interval training could help overweight, sedentary individuals get active again. The short bursts of activity provide an alternative for those daunted by the prospect of running several miles or exercising for longer periods without breaks.

However, experts caution: Start slow. Ease into activity, and talk to a physician first if you have any health concerns before beginning a new exercise routine.

Whatever you do, though, don’t kick the exercise baby steps out with the bathroom scale – even if you don’t see results right away. “You just have to be realistic about it,” Ciccolo says. “You have to just say, ‘OK, it’s going to take some time. I’m doing the right thing.’”

Source: U.S. News, Full Article

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