You're hitting the gym hard, but the number on the scale isn't budging. Nutrition is most essential to weight loss, but exercise can help (and aids in weight maintenance). With that in mind, how do you exercise to lose weight? Turns out, there are a few common mistakes that can thwart your progress.
But don't surrender to the scale just yet. Here, experts share five common exercise pitfalls that may prevent you from dropping pounds, plus advice on how to get back on track.
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Mistake 1: You Overdo It at the Gym
Sure, working out is great for your health. But even too much of a good thing can be harmful. That's right: If you exercise too hard and too often, you're not doing yourself any favors when it comes to weight loss.
That's in part because overtraining can boost your body's production of stress hormones, including cortisol. "An imbalance in cortisol can lead to myriad problems, including unstable mood, irritability, lack of concentration, insomnia and, in some, it can result in an increased appetite," says Mackenzie Banta, an ACE-certified health coach and functional training specialist at Trainiac.
In other words, you'll feel like crap, and, on top of that, you'll be ravenously hungry, which may very well lead to overeating and weight gain.
High cortisol levels can also contribute to inflammation and insulin resistance, both of which can encourage weight gain over time.
Conversely, increased levels of cortisol can also bring about a significantly decreased appetite in certain people, adds Banta. And when you're not eating enough and your body doesn't get the food it needs to function properly (more on this later), it slows down to conserve calories, which may make you pack on the pounds.
Aim for three strength-based workouts per week and one to two cardio sessions. And don't forget to stretch!
So, other than being moody and starving (or not hungry at all), what are the other signs of overtraining? The first major red flag is extreme tiredness.
"Sure, working out hard will wear out your body and muscles, but if you're increasingly exhausted and ignore proper recovery protocol, then you can run into problems of chronic fatigue," says Banta.
Another way you can tell you're overtraining? You feel like every workout is a struggle, and your performance has decreased. "If you're overtraining, you might start to slip in your endurance, agility and strength," adds Banta.
OK, so how often should you hit the gym? Though it varies by individual, Banta recommends doing three strength-based workouts a week along with one or two cardio and mobility sessions. "Adding mobility exercises to your training protocol will help with muscle soreness and overall tightness in the body," explains Banta.
Mistake 2: You Skip Recovery Days
Much like overtraining, not getting enough rest between sweat sessions can sabotage your weight-loss goals too.
"Exercise, especially weight training, damages muscle fibers, and our muscles heal and rebuild during periods of rest," says Banta. "If we do not get enough time for recovery, we run the risk of falling into a chronic energy deficit, which means the body is constantly pulling from its energy stores. In the long term, this can lead to chronic stress, metabolic imbalances and other serious symptoms." Again, all bad news for your overall health and your efforts to drop pounds.
So, how often should you take a recovery day? "A minimum of 24 hours is optimal recovery time after a workout," says Banta, "but the more taxing the workout is on your muscles, the longer you'll need to recover."
That said, you don't have to sit idly on your couch to rest and repair your muscles. Active recovery can include light, low-impact activities like stretching, yoga, swimming, walking or going for an easy bike ride.
"Weight training is the best way to lose weight and improve your body composition."
Mistake 3: You Do Too Much Cardio and Not Enough Strength Training
If losing weight conjures up visions of hours of mindless treadmill workouts, you're in for a pleasant surprise. All that cardio isn't an efficient way to approach weight loss, says Robert Herbst, a personal trainer, coach and powerlifter. "When you just do cardio, your body slows down your metabolism to conserve energy (calories)," he explains. Instead, Herbst recommends a combination of interval training — alternating bouts of high and low intensity — and weight training.
Banta agrees: "Weight training is the best way to lose weight and improve your body composition." That's because strength-based exercises build muscle, which burns more calories than fat, even when your body is at rest.
Mistake 4: You Don’t Track Calories Too
A big part of weight loss is the ratio of calories consumed versus calories burned, says Grace Albin, a Miami-based fitness and Pilates instructor. To drop a pound of fat in a week, you need to create a calorie deficit equal to 3,500 calories.
However, it's important to note that everybody's body is different — there are many external factors that can influence weight loss or gain besides calorie intake.
"People usually underestimate the calories they're consuming and rely too heavily on exercise to achieve a caloric deficit," says Banta. The science backs her up. In fact, a study in Appetite published online in October 2019 found that we commonly miscalculate — and underrate — the number of calories we eat on a daily basis.
And though working out is essential to the weight-loss equation, exercise alone won't help you beat the bulge. Indeed, a January 2016 study published in the journal Current Biology shows that our bodies adjust to higher levels of activity, resulting in a decline in weight loss — even a reversal — after a few months. Of course, that shouldn't stop you from exercising, which is important for your overall health.
That said, to lose weight, it's helpful to be mindful about what you eat. A calorie-tracking app could be a useful tool for counting calories, learning portion control and helping you make healthier food choices. Regardless, weight loss can be difficult, so if you need help settling on the best nutrition for your needs, consider working with a dietitian or doctor.
Mistake 5: You Never Vary Your Workouts
Not only is doing the same exercise routine week after week a total snore, it can also prevent you from making progress on the scale. The thing is, your muscles tend to adapt to your workouts within six to eight weeks, according to the American Council on Exercise. So, if you don't switch things up, you'll land in the dreaded plateau zone. Meaning? Your fitness gains and weight loss will grind to a halt.
Plus, performing repetitive movements every day can overwork the same muscles and joints, which may cause tightness, limited range of motion and pain, says Banta. And being sidelined due to an injury isn't going to help you shed pounds.
Instead of relying on a single type of exercise, try cross-training to keep your muscles challenged and guessing. Banta recommends working with a personal trainer to help you structure your workout programming to include strength training that varies in exercises, reps and duration, as well as cardio, mobility and rest days.
- Current Biology: “Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans.”
- American Council on Exercise: “Why is it important to vary my workout routines?”
- Appetite: “Mixed messages: Assessing interactions between portion-size and energy-density perceptions in different weight and sex groups.”