If More Americans are Exercising, Why Aren't We Losing Weight?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
After I had my second child, I lost most of the pregnancy weight pretty quickly. I was active throughout the nine months and started back into my regular routine soon after birth. I even started training for another marathon when my son was 7 months old. But I had this pesky 5-10 pounds that just wouldn't go away. I assumed it was just because I was nursing, but I stopped when my son turned one and those pounds still hung on. I couldn't understand it; I was extremely active and ate a (generally) healthy diet. Was I destined to keep those extra pounds forever?

Even though I heard it all the time (from myself and other members) on the SparkPeople Message Boards, I never thought this advice applied to me: "You can't out-train a bad diet." In general, I eat 4-5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, whole grains, and try to follow the principles of a healthy diet. But I was also eating a small handful of M&M's here-and-there throughout the day, I could easily go through a box of Nilla wafers (one of my favorites) in a couple of days, and I'd bring home cookies or some other kind of treat far too often. I always felt like it was my reward for a hard run or a really good workout. I was sure I was burning tons of calories, so I should be able to eat a few extra, right? In reality, it wasn't just a few extra, it was many extra. And those treats were the reason I couldn't lose the last of the weight.

A new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that obesity rates remain around 28%, which is the same as the data from 2008. The good news is that in 2009, 34.7% of Americans claimed they engage in regular leisure physical activity, up from 31.9% in 2008. If people are more active, why aren't less of us obese? There could be a number of reasons, but one of my guesses is that even though we're moving more, we're still eating too much.

Once I started being very conscious of my diet and cutting out a lot of the extra sugar, I lost those last few pounds pretty easily. My diet is far from perfect, and I still enjoy the foods I love. I just try to eat them in moderation. For example, I'll measure out one serving of Nilla wafers instead of eating half of the box in one sitting. And I try not to use food as my reward for a good workout. My reward is the feeling of accomplishment I have after I know I've pushed myself and met the challenge.

Have you ever used exercise as an excuse to eat more than you should? In your experience, how important is diet versus exercise when it comes to weight loss?

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Although I was a young 18 year old when I had my son, I gained approximately 15 lbs which put me at 115 and once I was finished breast feeding I lost all the baby fat.
Excellent article!!! Report
How true! For me, it was a little treat piece of "healthy chocolate square here, one extra small handful of nuts there, and whooaaaa.......no balance on the calorie burn for the day (which added up to the week, etc). Awareness, awareness, awareness. Thank you, Sparkpeople for education, accountability, and support! Report
The one thing that is constant between all successful diets whether they be low carb, low fat, weight watchers or any other is restriction or outright elimination of added sugar. Report
Those "little" bits do add up! I have to fous on every bite and be sure to track it. Report
Yes, I have used exercise as an excuse to eat more than I should. I knew it wasn't good to do that but I did it anyways. That's why when I didn't lose weight, I wasn't really surprised. I knew it was because I was often snacking or rewarding myself after a work out. Eating less and moving more is the key to losing weight. Eating right and eating junk food rarely and working out for a good amount of time is what I do now and the weight is coming off again. Report
I seriously doubt if people are exercising more than in the past. Self reporting is notoriously unreliable. Report
Wow! I thought I was reading about myself! Definately guilty on this one. Report
Great blog - yes I overeat every day of my life but I do some sort of excersise 5-6 days a week - at least 2 days spinnning and 1 day step aerobics - I always use that justification - thanks again for making me more aware of the whole weight loss puzzle :) Report
Yes, I too have used exercise as an excuse to eat more, or thought of that extra treat as a reward for a good workout. I am trying to focus on rewarding myself with the great feeling I get from that same workout & with the knowledge I have just done something great for my body that should not be undone with extra "reward" calories. I think diet is just as, if not more, important as exercise when it comes to a healthy lifestyle. Report
I used to think that way as well, and although I do like Nilla wafers my absolute downfall is oreos (ouch). I'm trying to make those moments further in between Report
This is exactly what my problem was. Small "treats" throughout the day. I also treated myself with something sweet after a good work out. I'd spend 1-2 hours in the gym daily and the scale wouldn't budge. It wasn't until I signed up for SP and started tracking my food that I realized how these treats were adding up. Now a fast paced walk/jog in the evening, coupled up with a balanced diet and for the first time I'm losing weight without putting hours in at the gym. It all makes perfect sense and yet it's so easy to overlook. Report
A banana or fruit smoothie after my workout is my reward, YUM! Report
I'm sorry, but "a feeling of accomplishment" isn't a reward for me. Do you have any other ideas?
When will I ever learn? This is a good wake up call for me too! I have gained a few pound past few weeks and it is because I have given myself permission to eat chips and chosen unhealthy menu options at restaurants, all because I love running! There is a child in me who wants treats every day- thankfully I can redirect her rewards ! This idea in my head about rewards is because I need to tell myself it really is OK to nurture me. Report
Yeah i think its Rotten Ronny's fault when I was young fast food was considered a once in a while TREAT. We had them where I live in Canada but we didnt get McDonalds (or AMERICAN Burger King) until I was in High School. I know I ate the lions share of meals at home and I was alot more active (I lifted weights nearly everday, went fishing and canoeing with my Dad, dabbled in karatedo) cycled or walked nearly everywhere (I didnt have my drivers until I was 18. So yeah I know I had a part in it undeniably but I know growing up there wasnt the pervasive red haired clown and his hard sell / cheapish addictive garbage food ( God arent Big Macs like CRACK?). Report
This is me just yesterday. A bite size butterfinger here and a 1/2 piece bacon there add up. If someone would just feed me every day and lock up my mouth I would be set! Report
I have been feeling like this, I work out more, so why aren't I losing the weight? Well, yeah... this makes sense. I really try to eat healthy but it is not been something I have pursued with as much intensity as working out, so now I will make it a priority and be aware of what I am putting in my mouth! Report
Yes I have and am doing this. I will workout hard and then say hmm I can have some ice cream hmm good but then my weight is either the same or a pound up and I'm wonder why. thanks for this article I needed to see it I guess to believe it. It's not like I didn't know it but I needed to see it again. Report
Ooohhh, do I ever use food as a reward for a hard work out. And I'm having the same problem--those last few pesky lbs. never seem to come off. On long runs, I am also eating a Clif Bar to maintain energy, so that's a double whammy. I'm more conscious of it now, and do it a little less often, but have a ways to go. And it's nuts, 'cause I'm rarely hungry immediately after exercise. I got hung up on the advice to eat some protein/carbs within 30 mins of hard exercise to begin the muscle re-building. That's okay, but it has to be a smaller quantity. Report
Exercise is great, but I think our downfall is Portion Distortion. We still eat many more calories per day than past generations did. Report
I think the body is going to push us to consume at least as many calories as we burn. So if we exercise more, we naturally eat more. For most of us, the only way to lose weight is to consientiously track our intake and aim to eat fewer calories than we burn. Report
I love nilla wafers, too. Eating half a box use to be so easy for me. :)Thanks for sharing. Report
Great blog! I think this is what my problem is - too many snacks. I need to consider this since I have been stuck at trying to lose 10 more pounds. Thanks for the thoughts Report
I definitely struggle w/ this, but w/ logging my food I have found a good way to prevent it. I check out the contents of what I want to eat, see if it fits my nutrition goals for the day and decide if I want it or not. Report
Very interesting. I wonder about my own eating habits. I do love the little snacks. Report
Awareness, awareness, awareness. You are so right, Jen!

Writing down everything I eat has made me painfully aware of how much I was shoveling into my mouth without even thinking about it. I have been a regular gym-goer for years, and there's not question, that exercise alone will not get the weight off, even though it has been good for my stamina, balance, and flexibility, and of course, those weight-bearing exercises help counter osteoporosis.

Many of the comments here have been excellent too. Pre-packaged foods are SO tempting for those of us with busy lives (and that's most of us). I've learned to be a nutrition label reader, and am still shocked to see the values on some seemingly healthy products.

I hadn't thought about the psychological trick we play on ourselves by thinking we can eat because we went to the gym. I'll be more aware of that one from now on. Report
I agree...this is why I will probably have to keep tracking food even after reaching goal weight. Report
Honestly I think the problem is precooked foods (i.e. chicken breast that only need microwaved) that are cooked with cheap and unhealthy oils or meat from animals that have been feed Pilsbury Stroodles instead of a cereals naturally grown(I use to work there I know they give products that are defective for animal consumtion) Report
I think this is my problem, I have gotten pretty good with the exercise and do some exercise every day, but I still struggle with eating healthy. I tend to snack a bit too much thinking its ok to have a little snack here or there because I am exercising. I have only lost around 13 pounds so far this year and it is really frustrating. This just reminds me that I need to track what I eat more closely. Report
This is exactly my problem. I Exercise hard, & never lack in my motivation there. It's always my diet that trips me up. I am in good shape, but still have a good 10 pounds of fat right around my stomach. That I can't seem to lose. I often figure a little extra here & there is okay because I am active, but it does catch up with you eventually. I have to be mindfull & change my mindset I guess. I believe both diet, & exercise are important mutually.and with me having a thyroid disorder this is especially important for me. Report
It also depends on just where and when and who answered the questions from the Centers For Disease Control, as to how much exercise they personally did. Come on, people tend to "overstate" on these types of questions all the time, especially if they know who is asking. The obesity topic is on the news all the time, and the backlash is worming it's way into our public psychi right now, especially with the bad economy. Get ready for lots more people joining this site. Report
This really is a mystery to me. I've lost about 60 lbs and have another 10 - 12 to go ... for 2 years now. But I did lose the 60 and have kept it off for two years. I did this with Weight Watchers and consistent exercising at the gym and training/walking 1/2 marathons. Why aren't I losing the last bit? Well, because now I'm down to the lowest level of food for WW's, but I get hungry. Especially when I work out a lot or train a lot. I'm not giving up.. it will happen sooner or later. The trick is never giving up... failure is not an option. Report
I use that as an excuse all the time! And I'm wondering why I'm on a plateau. It's mostly eating at night that's getting to me and I'm trying to work on my goal of not eating past 9:00 p.m. Report
Treats used to be treats. Now treats are staples.

My son and I even joke about it. The chips/candy/pop aisle we call the Staples Aisle. Report
I agree with JIBBIE49! Back when I was a child, we never carried sweets in our house on a constant basis. It was always a big treat to have an icecream cone once in a while. And as for the article, I feel like that is me! When I workout, I find myself eating more on days I workout than on days that I don't. I guess I feel like its okay to have the extra calories because I burned em off anyway... but in the end I never lose any weight at the end of the week because of it! So, it is def something I have to work on! Great article!!! Report
I could have written this article myself. I have been wondering why, lately, I have not been losing my weight as I feel I should. I have become very active, more than I ever have and have been "watching" what I eat, trying to stay within a range. Most recently, I have realized that I am not being consistent in my diet. I too reward my hardwork with food, feeling I deserve it for having worked so hard and that I have burned enough calories for said reward. It just defeats working hard in the first place.

Thanks for the article. Report
This was my life until a year ago - I could have written this article. I haven't changed my (already very active) exercise levels a bit, but have lost 30 lbs in the last 9 months by being more diligent about my daily caloric intake. I haven't cut anything out of my diet, no meal plans were followed, just simple calorie counting thanks to the online tracker. I wouldn't have believed it would be this easy, but I'm glad I did it! My knees are thanking me, I'm running faster and longer, and so many other great benefits! Report
My husband was talking today about how his parents NEVER bought ice cream or "sherbet" when he was a kid in the '50's. I said that mine bought 1/2 gallon with "cones" and we got one for an evening treat, but my parents never bought "ice cream sandwiches" or "fudge bars" when I was a kid. People today buy ALL this all the time and that is the difference. My parents didn't buy chips, and pizza, beer, etc. If my Dad had a "beer" it was when he stopped into the local town tavern. Now people have a "home bar" with it available all the time, etc. It is no wonder people are so obese. Report
I don't believe it's diet VERSUS exercise that's the problem for me. It's combining the two into a healthy lifestyle. I do at least 45 minutes of exercise a day and track all my food. Being honest with myself really shows me what I need to work on. I don't like the two steps forward, one step back mentality. It's self-defeating. Report
I would agree that most people have. I know I have and need to be more careful and watch my portions. Like the diet, exercise needs to be balanced with it. Calorie in, calorie out. Generally if I eat more calories than I should have, I try to burn off the extra's. Sometimes I don't always do that but I need to get better at it. Report
Once I get in a good exercise I do not want to sabotage it by eating something unhealthy. I end up beating myself up and ask myself why I put in that hard work to only eat something that is counter productive. Report
This is SOOOO me! I really thought that I could "out train" my bad eating habits. This summer, that is my focus. To be 95% clean-eating. I need to FUEL my body...not just satisfy my cravings. I'm giving myself a 2-bite rule. If I have a craving, I get 2 bites. It's working so far! Report
Guilty of this but mainly in the past. SP has helped tremendously.
Tracking the food and making myself face the calories is my key strategy. When I do this right, I know that working out will not erase an extra 600 cals in snacks or high cal food in a day. So I have to live with the consequences of some bad choices that day, and I don't expect to lose any weight.

However, I also track my exercise calories and do this on the conservative side. So, I balance the calories in and calories spent consciously. By planning this way, I can have a treat and not totally blow my calories.

The general rationalization: "well, I walked today so I can eat what I want" doesn't cut it for me anymore. No one is perfect however. We err because we're human. Report
It is pretty sobering to actually count up what you eat. I was the same, eating a couple of cookies and cakes and other sugary things a day, thinking it wasn't much. But because I wasn't cutting down on other food, those calories were adding up. Report
In my case, working out is my problem. I eat really well and limit any kinds of snacks or treats. I rarely have chips, ice cream, cookies, etc in the house and I'm too cheap to go out and buy them if it's not grocery day. But diet is extremely important because even though I say I eat healthy foods, I'm sure I'm low in certain areas like protein, iron, potassium, etc. Report
In this world of fast food, eating out more and exercising less, (getting rid of recess in schools) I'm not surprised that we're not losing the weight as we should. I normally do the reverse, I check out my food to see what I have to do in exercise or the next meal to make up for overindulging! They are both equally important as well as establishing healthy eating habits. Report
Just today, in Maryland, my local newspaper said that my state had ranked the 24th highest in obesity; ranking in this order: blacks, Latinos, and whites. But it was notated that a lot of it had to do with economics and affordibility of good, nutrient dense, healthy food. I agree with that whole heartedly. Report
I have a hard time not rewarding myself with the "bad foods" after a good workout. I felt like it would even out after what I worked out and then put back in...but I guess I was wrong all along too. Thanks for posting! Report
Portions get larger and larger at resturants so intake tends to be higher. I eat half my meal at resturant, other half is for later. Report
Oh, I DEFINITELY think Americans are overeating. I get so tired of listening to friends/family claiming that they don't eat THAT much, but once they wrote everything they ate and then used the food tracker... their eyes bugged out of their head! I know I'm guilty of telling myself I can have a donut because I worked out ... teehee!

It makes sense too that with all the doctor shows, Oprah and the like, I think that people are over-estimating how active they really are. We are told that walking at a steady pace for 10 minutes counts as exercise, when the reality is that you gotta work up a sweat! Report
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