I think it’s time we all stopped talking about ‘eating less and exercising more’ as the key to weight loss. It is not. Restricting calorie intake and increasing exercise leads to an input / output mentality that ties many people into an obsessive cycle. Yes it works in the short term, but in the long term it is unsustainable and can bring about a very negative relationship to both food and exercise, which only re-enforces the negative spiral. As the biomechanist Katy Bowman says in ‘Move your DNA’:
There is great debate over the generalized calorie-in-vs.-calorie-out theory when it comes to weight loss. Despite this theory seeming like a no brainer, it isn’t. Metabolic science is hugely complex and there is much left out when we fill the “calorie-out” side of this coin with “exercise” and research whole-body metabolic activity questionnaires, pedometers, and other ‘easy-to-quantify’ but indirect and inaccurate measures of energetic expenditures.
As a teenager I was completely obsessed with my weight. I loved dance and spent most of my free time at the ballet school. I matured early and had pretty much the body I have now when I was 11 years old. Still, I dreamt of becoming a ballet dancer and thought I needed to be stick thin to achieve this. Unfortunately teachers at the ballet school actively encouraged me to lose weight. The way I did this was by skipping meals, going through whole days on no food and then, starving by the evening, eating dinner plus lots of bread to make up. Luckily this never really progressed into a serious eating condition, but so began my difficult relationship with food.
When I moved to London to train at a professional dance school things got a whole lot worse. I had no concept of how much to eat or what to eat, for that matter. Like most first time Londoners I gained 5kgs even though I was spending most of my day dancing! For the rest of my training and a few years after that my body clung persistently to those extra kgs. The worst thing of all was that I expended so much of my energy just wanting to be thinner that I missed out on what I was really there to do. After leaving college I did about 3 different part time jobs. I would be in the gym at 7am, workout for an hour and then go to professional class at 9am before heading to work till 8pm or 10pm. Everyday! Still, my body held on to those stubborn kgs. I was killing myself on the treadmill every day, and barely eating.
By this point my main work shifted to a gym, so now I was around fitness fanatics all day long. I was having to stand up at the reception desk for 8 hours at a stretch and realized that my back was aching. I was forced to see an osteopath who basically told me to go and do Pilates. I decided to do the Teacher Training instead. The course I did was matwork only and spread out over a whole year. I started to learn how to move again and finally had the tools to train myself. By the end of the year I had lost the excess weight and now rarely go over my happy weight. The best thing is that I was also stronger and more flexible than ever before too.
Yes I am going to say it: the difference was Pilates. Why? Because instead of focusing on quantity of “exercise” I was finally working on the quality of my movement. Quality is the key ingredient that is missing from the ‘eat less exercise more’ paradigm. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it that counts. The reason for this is that our bodies are programmed to try to conserve energy. Technique, and the watchful eye of a teacher, is the only way to access the benefits of a movement without causing injury and strain elsewhere. When you work your muscles effectively, you gain strength without shortening and tightening up. This raises your basic metabolic rate. Now your whole body is using up more energy even at a resting state. The initial mindful investment of energy goes to work for you for the rest of the day, a bit like a financial investment. People earn money by doing work, exchanging their time and energy for money. But people become wealthy because they invest that earned money in assets that go to work for them. It’s the same story with weight loss. If you detach yourself from the direct relationship between input and output and focus on quality output and quality input, your body will do the self regulation so you can just get on with your life.
Since my epiphany I have been baffled by the crazy things people do in the name of getting into shape. No you do not need to starve yourself and run laps around your park every day. And for those who still think this is the way forwards you may be surprised to learn that being programmed towards efficiency, the more you do something the more efficient your body becomes at doing it, ie: the less calories you burn. This is how it’s possible to run a marathon and still have a potbelly.
Now to be clear, my situation, and that of many of my clients, is very different to that of people who are obese. Obesity brings with it further complications and may actually require an eat less and move more initiative to get the initial weight loss going. Pilates can help to get the spine and joints moving and reduce the strain that the additional weight puts on the body as a whole. (Every now and again I have to carry small weights around to my clients. It’s amazing how painful carrying 2kgs extra can be!!!) Luckily few of the people I work with are in this category. Most just want to lose a few kgs off stubborn areas and these are the people I’m talking to here.
My issues with eating lingered for several years until I started living with my ever-wiser older sister who literally taught me how to eat. If you’re stuck in the negative input-output trap, there is a way out: eat proper food, join a Pilates class, do a little cardio that you enjoy and get on with your life! Exercising more does not necessarily burn more calories. It’s quality not quantity that counts and yes, Pilates does help.