exercises in futility

Okay Don’t Freak Out But Exercising Doesn’t Make You Lose Weight

Yes, kettlebell, we're sad, too.
Yes, kettlebell, we’re sad, too. Photo-Illustration: Monkey Business Images/Corbis

Do you dutifully track every morsel that passes your lips and every annoying workout in hopes of slimming down? Bad news: Mounting evidence suggests that weight loss isn’t necessarily as simple as calories in versus calories out.

As The Atlantic points out in a simultaneously cheerful and depressing infographic, Americans are working out more than ever, but obesity still continues to rise. Plus, people in countries like Japan and Norway exercise less than us and still weigh less — lucky jerks.

It seems that the energy your body burns might not be directly tied to your activity level. One study found that even though indigenous people in Tanzania walked up to twice as far as Westerners, they actually burned fewer calories than we did.

Experts have long theorized that your body adapts to a certain activity level as a cute survival mechanism — meaning your metabolism might literally slow down. A study published in January found that people’s calorie-torching powers didn’t increase the more active they were; the most active people burned the same amount as those who were moderately active. You may weep now. (And, yes, this is why women’s magazines constantly remind you to “switch up your workout” in order to avoid the dreaded “workout plateau.”)

All of these facts together might explain why some people can never seem to lose the last five or ten pounds and, why, paradoxically, people often gain weight when training for a marathon. Psychology is at work here, too: Not only do people often believe they’re working out way harder than they really are, they also tend to overeat afterward in step, especially if they view exercise merely as caloric penance, not something that’s good for their overall well-being. (It clearly doesn’t help that hitting boot camp or going for a run makes you as ravenous as a tween boy.)

But then again, rampant overuse of antibiotics in livestock might be making us all fat even if we eat strictly organic food, so why not have that office birthday cake and be happy?

The Cruelest Lie: Losing Weight Through Exercise