15. Exercise Mistakes that Stall or Stop Weight Loss
Welcome to episode 15 of the Mindful Weight Loss podcast. I am your host, Emily Erekuff and today we are talking about mistakes that so many of us make with exercise that actually harm our weight loss efforts. If we think about and use exercise the right way it can aid weight loss and help us create better relationships with ourselves and our bodies, but there's a bit of finesse to that, and it's helpful to first know what to avoid.
So let's jump in to those mistakes, and be sure to stay until the end to hear about the right way to think about and use exercise.
The first mistake is using away from vs towards motivation to get you exercising. When you exercise because you are ashamed of your body and want to change it as quickly as possible, you're using away from motivation, you are taking action because you are trying to move away from what you see as an undesirable state.
Conversely if envision your future self as someone who exercises and is fit and healthy and you are excited to make that a reality, that's towards motivation. You are taking action because you are trying to move towards a desired state.
You can also think of this simply as negative vs positive motivation. If your motivating thoughts don't feel so great, you're trying to push something bad away, but if your motivating thoughts feel good, you're moving towards something good.
And now notice that these mindsets are essentially two sides of the same coin. Either way you desire change and in fact had you not felt negatively about your weight, you might never have felt positive about wanting to exercise and be fit. This is important to remember because it's easy to slip from a positive mindset into a negative one and the most accurate way to be aware of that is by paying attention to your feelings.
The problem with away from or negative motivation is that your fuel to act is willpower. If you are exercising to get rid of your fat, you are probably thinking that it's something you have to do, not something you want to do. And so you use willpower to get yourself to do it. But willpower runs out, and if you're also using willpower to diet and restrict your food, you'll run out really fast.
Mistake 2 can happen even when you are using towards motivation and that is not doing something you at least kind of enjoy. Even if you think really positively about exercise and are excited to do it, if there's zero enjoyment when you do it, and it's just a means to an end, it's going to be really difficult to sustain your desire to keep doing it. It's going to start feeling like a punishment and then you will end up resorting to willpower to make yourself do it, and that's not going to last.
And I do want to clarify here that this doesn't mean what you're doing always feels good or that you always look forward to it. Our brains naturally want to conserve energy, so even seasoned exercisers might rather watch Netflix, but the key is once they get out there and get started, they aren't hating it the entire time.
Mistake 3 can also happen even if you are using towards motivation and that is starting too big. You might envision your future self as someone who runs 5 plus miles each day, but if you haven't laced up your running shoes in months or ever, forcing yourself to run 5 miles at the outset isn't going to feel good. You're setting yourself up for injuries, and because you don't have the stamina you're also just turning it into a bad experience. And that's not something you're going to look forward to repeating.
You need to start where you are and that might mean just running around the block at the outset. And if you find yourself saying that isn't good enough, then you need to question your motivation. Not good enough for what exactly? Will it not get you results fast enough? If that's the case, then you're using away from motivation. You're trying to get away from who you are right now. Again, notice how easy it is to slip from that positive mindset to a negative. A lot of the time you might think you are running towards that compelling vision of the future, but really you're just trying to push away who you are right now.
The final mistake we make with exercise is expecting to see lower numbers on the scale, because at the outset that usually doesn't happen. In fact, if you haven't exercised in a while and start again, you will most likely see a degree of weight gain.
Let's say you start jogging for 10 minutes a day 5 times a week. Depending on your current activity level that might not seem like enough activity to really change things up, but I guarantee that you will likely gain upwards of 5 pounds. Not only will you be building muscle, your muscles will swell as part of the healing response and that will cause you to retain water. Because of that you will likely see an increase in thirst and naturally drink more water. And if you do this over a period of several weeks you will continue requiring extra hydration and you might see a slight increase in hunger as well. Add that all together and you've got some circumstances that will require you to be extremely on the ball when it comes to managing your thinking and your mindset. If you don't expect any of this or are expecting to see weight loss rather than some weight gain, you might get really upset, conclude that there's something wrong with you or what you're doing, stress about why you're not getting the results you wanted, and then you might overeat to deal with all that stress and throw in the towel with the exercise because why bother if it doesn't help you lose weight.
Again, be mindful of your motivation here. If you are only exercising in order to lose weight, getting through this initial gain is going to be difficult. If instead you can focus on achievement, becoming stronger and more fit, you'll be able to celebrate those results while your weight loss goal stalls a bit.
So let me recap those mistakes before talking about a better approach.
Mistake 1. Using away from motivation.
Mistake 2. Not doing something you enjoy.
Mistake 3. Starting too big.
Mistake 4. Expecting to see lower numbers on the scale.
So you might be thinking, well yeah, why bother with exercise if it's not going to fast-track my weight loss results?
And the answer is that if you approach exercise the right way, it can actually help you embody a new identity which will help you change everything else even faster.
According to Tony Robbins, identity change is the quickest way to create behavior because of the brain's desire to maintainconsistency between thought and behavior. Consider for example lifelong smokers who develop lung cancer and quit smoking the very moment they receive their diagnosis. Quitting becomes easy when the action is no longer aligned with their identity. They may have tried earnestly to quit for years, but when they come to see smoking as something that is truly killing them and they have the belief "I don't want to die" continuing to smoke simply isn't an option.
Now that's an extreme example to make a point, and thankfully we don't have to think we're going to die to change our beliefs about ourselves. Instead we can create evidence to support our new thoughts and doing this can be surprisingly easy.
So you want to become someone who exercises. You want to think of yourself as an exerciser. If your concept of exercise is doing things that are beyond your immediate capacity - maybe running 10 miles or lifting weights for an hour, you won't be able to think of yourself as an exerciser right away. But if you adjust your definition of exercising and make it a whole lot easier - say walking for 15 minutes 3 times a week - then you can do that fairly easy behavior and point to that as evidence for the fact that you are someone who exercises.
This is the beauty of starting small and easy. It enables you to change your identity almost overnight. And your small actions will gain momentum as you feel successful and then look for more ways to reinforce that new identity. Once you begin to think of yourself as an exerciser, you'll be more apt to exercise more. And exercise will get easier. And when you see what you can accomplish by starting small and allowing yourself to progress at a comfortable clip, you will recognize the power of momentum and that you can use that to make changes in other areas of your life as well.
Another side effect is learning to recognize and appreciate your body for the amazing things it does, rather than judging it solely based on what it looks like. And that has it's own positive spill-over effects. You might be more inclined to listen to your body, to stop eating when you are full, to feed it healthier foods.
And most importantly you'll realize that change doesn't have to feel bad. If you've listened to any of the other episodes, I hope you are starting to see a theme emerging, and that is that change is sustainable when it feels good - when we proactively think and act in ways that make us feel good rather than ways that make us feel bad. So find an exercise that you enjoy, take it easy and rather than looking for it to give you immediate results on the scale, watch your accomplishments and momentum build and feel good about how easy change can be.