‘Go to gym,’ I posted on Facebook this morning. ‘Go to gym. Go to gym. Go to gym. Just go. Go now.’
Most of my Facebook and Twitter posts have the simple purpose of making other people smile. I know getting to gym is sometimes difficult, especially if you are feeling, like I was this morning, a little bit under the weather: it’s cold outside, I have just recovered from the flu, and now I have a tight chest and the beginnings of a cold niggling at me.
But a setback happens each time I reach a certain level of fitness, and then the lay-off means I’m back to square one when I strap those shoes back on again. So I decided that I just had to push on through: just go. Sitting on the bike for 20 minutes is better than lying on the couch feeling sorry for myself. Add just 50 sit-ups to that, some calf raises, a few squats and a quick walk around the park, and I’ve had a light work-out instead of doing nothing at all. A bit of body maintenance.
So, as I was talking myself up like this, a few friends posted some much appreciated encouraging comments to help me out the front door. Then one friend asked ‘Gym for weight loss or the other benefits of exercise?’ By the time I read this, I was at the gym and thought ‘Ah! Good question! I can answer that!’ Sitting on the bike, counting down the minutes vs kilometres, I started thinking about why I was at gym and devising a blog-type answer.
Later, the same friend posted another comment: ‘’Cos if it’s for weight loss don’t bother, exercise isn’t for that.’
And I thought, well now, I have to respond to that!
So, is gym for weight loss?
I think, to start with, it definitely depends on what you’re going to be doing there. I’ve seen people sitting on machines, not a pearl of sweat anywhere on their bodies, texting away on their cell phones. I’ve seen women in full make-up and colour coordinated Spandex sipping water and chatting away furiously, their well manicured hands and red painted lips moving faster than their feet ever have. I’ve seen bored people reading books while their legs make laborious rotations on the exercise bikes.
Chances are, but I can’t be sure, that these folk lament the ineffectiveness of going to gym. ‘I go every day,’ they say, ‘and look at me. Nothing changes. I just stay the same.’ Maybe they reach for a bun to go with their latté to help them commiserate. Of course, I’m making that last bit up. I don’t know for sure.
I have also seen people with pained expressions, eyes closed against the sweat pouring down their faces, lifting weights, doing squats, running on the treadmill, standing up on the bikes to attack those virtual hills. Usually they appear to have zero per cent body fat. Or thereabouts. I could be wrong, but I don’t think they say much about gym not working for them.
But what does gym do for me?
Honest truth is that I really don’t like gym very much. I prefer long-distance walking. I’m not a runner, either, but I try to maintain a speed of about 8 min 30 secs per kilometre when walking, and I try to walk at least 10 km at a time. I aim for 8 minutes per kilometre and, of course, a 15 or 20 km walk is far more effective. But it takes a great deal of time, which one does not always have, and some variation is good. This is where going to gym comes in. Because I don’t particularly like it, I do have to push myself to go. If I’ve already had a shower, chances are I won’t go. If it’s past one o’clock in the afternoon, I probably won’t go. If I’ve eaten something, I probably won’t go.
But when I do go, the benefits are enormous.
For example, while you’re focusing on completing 10 km in less than 20 minutes on the exercise bike, you really have no time for glum thoughts. Although one can multitask, and listen to various conversations at the same time, one’s mind can really only hold one thought at a time. So if you’re telling yourself ‘Only five minutes to go, speed up, you can do it’, you can’t also be telling yourself ‘Oh my word, business is so slow, I’m going to be bankrupt by the end of the year’. Okay, you could be so demotivated that you sit, catatonic, on the bike thinking only glum thoughts. But then you probably need some nice people to help you off the bike and into the psychiatric ward.
Once you’re there (at gym, not the psychiatric ward), and once you’ve started exercising, you tell yourself ‘Okay, I’ve done 20 sit-ups, why not do 20 more?’ It’s easier to talk yourself into doing more exercise once you’ve already started, than it is to talk yourself into starting – especially if you’re feeling a bit tired, down, overweight and generally just-not-into-it.
Once your heart rate goes up and you start sweating, you’re burning calories. Chances are you’re not eating a cream bun or drinking a beer while at the gym, so if you’re burning calories, you’re burning fat. I think the logical result of that is weight loss. You could, of course, destroy all that hard calorie burning by stopping off for a Big Mac, which you ‘deserve’ after all that effort. But that has to do with your mind-set, and not with whether or not you went to gym.
That little bit of exercise will have released a few endorphins and you will definitely be walking out of the gym feeling better than you did when you walked in – even if you’ve done only 20 or 30 minutes’ exercise. And if you’re feeling a little bit happier, you’re less likely to feel you need to lift your mood by snacking on a chocolate or some carb.
Simply not eating the chocolate is a step towards weight loss, I think.
After a few days of regular gymming, your mood starts to change. You’ll find that you’re generally a bit more optimistic about life, more able to wave off little irritations, and less likely to want to run bad drivers off the road.
This Pollyanna effect leads to fewer cravings for other things that make you feel good, like aforementioned chocolate, for example, or a glass of wine (or two) in the evenings. Without the glass of wine (or two) in the evening, you’re less likely to sit around, relaxing, and more likely to get on with doing other things. And, just like one drink leads to another, so one thing leads to another: you’re more likely to say ‘Yes, let’s go, it should be fun’ than ‘No, I don’t feel like going, it’s too cold, I’m too tired, I’m not feeling so well’. Happy Pollyanna has become Energiser Bunny. The more active you are, the more active you want to be; the happier you are, the happier you become.
So, so far, you’re burning calories, taking in less carb and sugar, drinking less alcohol and fewer energy drinks, feeling happier, and being more active … sounds to me as if you’re ahead of the game. You’ll also find your brain is working better – your thoughts are sharper and you’re more creative, which could mean that projects are easier to complete and problems are easier to solve (if they’re still as important as they appeared to be while you were horizontal on the couch). People pay a fortune to therapists, nutritionists, and various other –ists to reach this level.
If, at this stage, you get on the scale, you are likely to find that you weigh … oh dear … MORE! Yep. You will weigh more. A little bit. We all hate to hear it, but it’s true: you’re burning fat and building muscle. Muscle is denser than fat, and so weighs more than fat.
This could spawn the conviction that gym doesn’t help you lose weight, and that it makes you gain weight, in fact. Give up. Don’t go to gym. But wait! Step away from the scale – there’s more!
Boy-oh-boy – muscle sure is prettier than fat! Muscle also increases your metabolic rate. So, the more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn (therefore, the opposite is true: the more fat you have, the more fat you’ll make). So the weight gain shown on the scale is only temporary.
Ignore the scale. Stay off the scale. Throw it out. Wear clothes that fit well and make you feel slim and attractive instead. Your scale, the evil bitch, will tell you that you are gaining weight, which is demoralising (if weight loss was your aim). Your clothes, however, will tell you a whole other story. Where there once was a bump will now be a line … and lines make clothes look so much better than bumps do.
Motivation to change what you eat and drink? I think so. Weight loss to follow? Makes sense.
Sure, there are times when weight loss just doesn’t happen. Chances are you either need to increase the weights you push, step up the cardio, change your routine to avoid that plateau, and watch that you’re not eating so much of the so-called health foods (for example, energy bars, and handfuls of nuts and seeds), which often are very fattening.
If you exercise enough, often enough, and watch what you eat, you will lose weight – even if you have various medical conditions that could cause weight gain, even if you’re going through adolescence or menopause; it just means you have to work harder.
So, I figure, gym might not be for weight loss. It might be for increasing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) so that you can reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and depression. It might just be for a change of scenery. It might just be so that you can use someone else’s shower and save on your water bill. It might be to check out the pecs ’n’ abs in the free weights section.
But it sure is going to take you a step closer to weight loss than not going is going to.
PS: Of course, the same goes for any form of exercise – walking, running, dancing, boxing, swimming …