If you want to lose weight, then your trips to the gym or to that power yoga class on Sundays may be sabotaging your efforts.
Of course this statement runs counter to popular weight loss advice which gets rammed down our throats at every turn:
To lose weight you need to exercise more.
Get your heartrate up.
Push yourself to the limit.
Sweat it out.
But if this advice actually worked, how do we explain the correlation of the obesity epidemic in the 80s with the introduction of gyms and exercise for weight loss at that same time?
If you are anything like me then you are someone who has always been super active (yoga, running, hiking, gym memberships, OrangeTheory, pilates, you-name-it-I’ve-done-it) and yet was still overweight.
How is this possible?!?!
Exercise = Weight Loss… Doesn’t It?
It turns out that when it comes to exercise for weight loss, the opposite is true.
If you want to lose weight, stop exercising.
The reason this works is because when we exercise we exert energy that our bodies then want to replenish quickly with food.
And not just any food.
Energy-dense (read: calorie-dense) foods that will replenish the spent fuel quickly.
In other words, exercise makes us hungry, and hungrier than we would have been had we not exercised.
So we eat.
And our thinking often goes something like this:
“I ate that chocolate cake last night so I have to pay for it today by running 3 miles.”
“I worked out this morning so I can eat at In N Out for lunch today.”
The problem is that our thinking about food and exercise is transactional, while the actual relationship between food and exercise -- calories in, calories out -- is not.
Studies show that the number of calories you consume because you exercised or are planning to exercise is far beyond the number of calories you actually burn when you exercise
But we don’t just eat more of what we would have eaten had we not exercised.
When we push ourselves to exercise in ways that we don’t actually enjoy we feel punished. And when we feel punished, we instinctively want to reward ourselves after.
So we eat the tortilla chips and guac at the Mexican restaurant at dinner or buy the pint of Ben & Jerry’s at the grocery store on the way home from the gym.
The answer here may seem unbelievable, but it works.
Stop exercising for weight loss.
If you want to exercise because you genuinely enjoy it, go for it.
Find forms of movement that you enjoy and do it for pleasure’s sake.
That way you won’t need to “reward” yourself with food afterwards.
Because the movement was the reward.
But the trick is that the movement has to be honestly desired and enjoyed, not transactional with food at all.
When you allow yourself to actually enjoy movement, you won’t find yourself gorging on Oreo’s after and engaging in the vicious cycle of binging, self-loathing, and exercising to compensate.
So go for a walk with your family.
Practice yoga for yoga’s sake.
And watch the weight fall off.
Last week I showed up to a meeting at 2:15 in the afternoon and on the conference table were the following.
Here is what I did.
That was it.
Never once was I tempted to taste or consume any of it. Not once.
At this point you may think I’m full of BS.
Or at the very least you think I’m BSing myself.
I get it.
I would be skeptical of me too, if I were you.
In my not so distant past I used to be someone who would have sat there, at that table, and went for it, pushing thoughts of resistance swiftly aside as I indulged in a brownie and then snacked on popcorn for the entire duration of the meeting, unable to resist the salty snack at that energy-dip time of day.
And I would have worried while I was eating.
And I would have been totally distracted by my thoughts and feelings after eating.
And this is an abbreviated list of my thoughts.
Adding insult to injury, I would have missed about 50% of the meeting because my mind would have been busy with all of these anxiety-fueled thoughts. I wouldn’t have been mentally present.
Were I not to have dove straight in and eaten the brownie and popcorn, I would have missed just as much of the meeting-- maybe even more-- because I would have sat there with overwhelming urges to eat the brownie and popcorn, using ALL of my willpower and resistance to not do it.
And it would have lasted for about 10 minutes before I gave in, first to the popcorn, choosing to tell myself that
And then at some point in the hour I would have used up all of my willpower and given in to the brownie, maybe eating only half at the table and then eating the rest on my way out the door, just before I drop the cocktail napkin in the garbage-- as if eating over the garbage is not eating the whole thing.
And I would have felt like shit. For having eaten those two things, yes, but mostly for going against my own will. I didn’t want to eat them. I knew I didn’t. And I tried to resist. But the urge felt too strong, so I gave in.
How is this possible?? How can we want something so badly for ourselves-- to not eat junk food and to lose weight-- and yet we feel compelled by a force greater than ourselves and give in?
The way that I and so many others who have done this work have reconciled this is by reconciling our desires with our thoughts.
Instead of perseverating on the food on the table, I had a few fleeting thoughts in observance of the fact that I had no desire. I marveled for a moment about how far I’d come and how awesome it felt to not be distracted by the argument in my head and the shame and guilt that were inevitable.
I literally do not desire brownies or popcorn anymore.
I genuinely did not have a single urge to eat anything at that meeting yesterday because I have done the mind work necessary to overcome those unwanted desires.
And you can, too.
You just have to want to learn how to rid yourself of desire for things you don’t want to desire.
And, you have to want to do that more than you want to desire those things.
Some of us are not ready for this.
Some people say they don’t want to want it, but are unwilling to walk the path of discomfort in order to come out on the other side.
They fear not-wanting.
What would it mean if they couldn’t enjoy a brownie again?
And the question I would ask them is which do you want more? To want the brownie, or to not want the brownie?
I am not talking about resistance. I am not talking about will power. I am talking about not wanting it at all.
Think about something you naturally don’t want. Maybe it’s cigarettes. Maybe it’s brussel sprouts. Whatever it is, imagine I place a tray of them in front of you right now. How would you feel? Would you be resisting them? Would you be using any willpower at all to not binge on them? No! You would say, no thank you and push them away, not giving them another thought.
That is exactly what brownes and popcorn feel like for me now.
And that is freedom, my friends. Pure, unadulterated freedom.
Not wanting, non-desire is the key to permanent weight loss.
You can do this.
Yoga can be key for weight loss, but not for the reasons you might imagine.
Typically when an overweight person comes to yoga it is with great anxiety and discomfort.
All of those media images of long, slender, twenty-something, sun-kissed white women have done a number on our conception of what it means to be a yogi and practice yoga.
And yet, that media image is often the “inspiration” and the impetus for our decision to sign up for a class or hit play on the yoga video in the first place.
I know, because it was my impetus for years.
“If I could just be more disciplined, practice more, do more, go harder, I would look like that.”
The desire to be slender and strong is what first brings many of us to the mat.
And then “reality” hits.
Anxiety and negative thinking set in.
Throughout the practice thoughts like:
And it is here, with these thoughts running through your head that the growth happens.
You belong on your mat.
You belong on your mat exactly as you are right now.
You belong on your mat in yoga class exactly as you are right now.
Right alongside that thin girl who has been struggling with an eating disorder since she was 11 and has found yoga as a way of releasing her fear of food and losing control.
Right alongside that 25 year old former gymnast who uses yoga as a way to feel better about herself after years of self-loathing and self-assault.
Right alongside that stay-at-home mom of college age kids who is stronger, and calmer, at 52 than she was at 22.
Right along side every person in that room.
Including that ripped dude in the front who can’t stop doing handstands in the middle of the room despite them not being in the teacher’s sequence. (You know who I’m talking about. ;)
Because all they did today is what you did today: decided to get up and go to yoga.
You get to do that, too.
You have a right to your practice.
You have a right to feel in your body what they feel in theirs-- the building of heat to build strength, the lengthening of muscles to soften and release tension and stress, and the connection to something far greater than themselves.
And once you stake your claim, once you make a habit of crossing the threshold of the yoga studio, you will gain the opportunity to transcend the physical preoccupation with your body and begin to learn about your mind and how it is the sole contributor of what your body looks and feels like.
Significant, permanent weight loss happens when we learn why we are overweight in the first place.
And you don’t need yoga to tell you that.
I can tell you that.
You are overweight because you overeat.
You overeat to numb out all those undesirable, uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, sadness, boredom, exhaustion, fear, and stress.
Everytime you feel strong, uncomfortable emotion-- or sometimes not-so-strong, just a whisper of that emotion-- your brain sends signals to distract yourself from that negative emotion with food. Eat a salty snack, find some chocolate, pour a glass of wine.
This is the definition of emotional eating.
And it is a vicious cycle.
Because you will have negative emotions about 50% of the time and therefore are slated to eat a whole lot more than your body needs.
Anytime we eat when we are not hungry we are teaching our body that food is the answer to uncomfortable emotions.
Just like Pavlovian dogs, we condition automatic responses to eat when we are not hungry, resulting in weight gain.
The good news is that you can learn to feel your feelings without overeating.
Yoga and meditation are gateways to that learning.
Yoga teaches us to feel without reacting to that feeling.
Yoga teaches us to stay in that uncomfortable place, in fact to go deeper into that place.
And the result is growth, health, and weight loss.
Working through physical and mental discomfort on the mat is like practicing for a soccer match.
You won’t be in game day shape if you have skipped practice all week.
And what is game day?
Game day he anxiety-ridden evenings after a long day at work when all you want is to gulp down a couple glasses of wine, eat take-out pizza, and finish it off with some really good chocolate-- a lot of it.
Game day is the cookies in the breakroom at 2 PM.
Game day is going to a party during the holidays.
Go practice for game day.
Step onto your mat with the intention of practicing staying with discomfort.
Take an observer’s eye to your mind and see what you learn.
The lesson just may unlock the door to a world of insight that will lead to permanent weight loss once and for all.
Lia Pinelli is a weight loss coach and educator who helps women put an end to emotional overeating and lose weight, permanently.