Body size, looks, and weight are concerns for many athletes. Some athletes have to be light for a specific weight class (rowing, wrestling, mixed martial arts). Others want to be lighter because the culture surrounding their sport demands a svelte physique (ballet, gymnastics, figure skating). Some seek the optimal power-to-weight ratio (running, cycling, cross-country skiing). Each sport comes with its own diet culture and all too often, athletes end up discontent with their weight, body fatness, and physiques. The standard solution: exercise harder to shed pounds and attain the perfect body.
The problem is exercise is better known for helping to maintain fat loss than for contributing to fat loss itself. Reducing body fatness depends more on reducing food intake than on increasing exercise. As you likely know, the more you exercise, the hungrier you get, the more you eat. If you are an already-lean athlete who under-eats, your body will protect itself from wasting away by conserving energy the rest of the day. That is, after a hard workout, you might (subconsciously) choose to do deskwork instead of run errands.
So now I pose this question to you: If exercise had no impact on your body weight or appearance, would you change how much you currently exercise?
Performance vs. Image
Dedicated athletes will likely answer “no change.” They follow a training program geared toward achieving a specific performance goal. Collegiate athletes at the D-I level have little choice in how much exercise they do. They have to perform—particularly if they have a scholarship. Athletes in sports that demand lightness would likely cut out cardio done specifically to burn off calories and instead eat a little less. Fitness exercisers might do only workouts they truly enjoy. Compulsive exercisers with a high drive for thinness—which can include any of the athletes mentioned above—may want to take more rest days, stop getting up at 4:30 every morning to do a killer workout, or do fewer double workouts. But anxiety about “getting fat” would undoubtedly force them to relentlessly exercise hard, day after day, to burn off calories and “look good.”.
Is lighter better?
Most athletes believe they will perform better if they drop a few pounds. While this may be true for someone who has excess flab to lose, the lose-weight-at-any-cost struggle is more likely to hurt performance than enhance it. (Just how well do you actually perform when you are hungry and depleted?) A study (1) with elite female swimmers indicates those who restricted calories during a 12-week training session ended up 10% slower in 12 weeks, while their well-fueled teammates improved by 8%. The food restriction did not even result in fat loss, despite eating about 700 calories less per day than their teammates. (They averaged 22% body fat; the non-dieting swimmers averaged 19%.) How can that be???
Fat loss is not mathematical. The knock off 500 calories a day to lose one pound of fat per week belief has proven to be untrue. The body is complicated. Genetics rules. Bodies are supposed to vary; they naturally come in different sizes and shapes.
The problem with restricting food
Unfortunately, restricting food to be “thinner at any cost” to hit a target weight or a desired look will sooner or later come with the high price of poorer performance, injuries and/or poor mental health. Restricting calories to sustain a weight that is too low means restricting the vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbs, and fats that you need to refuel, replenish and restore your body. When you go on a diet, your bones also go on a diet and they lose density. After repeated weeks and months of malnutrition, the body will inevitably break down, with stress fractures and over-use injuries taking a toll.
Tips for compulsive exercisers
Compulsive exercisers push themselves day after day to burn off calories. No rest days allowed. Some compulsive exercisers assert they love their (relentless) exercise program. Yes, they may love the endorphins that contribute to the post-exercise “high.” They love when people compliment their leanness. They love the sense of accomplishment that comes from exercising for XXX days in a row and love the sense of control that comes from completing the killer workout. But do they love feeling driven to burn off calories? Do they love feeling hungry, tired, and easily irritated most of the time? Are their relationships suffering?
If you are asking your body to exercise, you want to make sure it is adequately fueled. You should not feel dizzy, lightheaded, confused, or excessively fatigued at the start, middle, or end of a workout. That body should NOT be exercising; it is in a bad place.
Enjoyment should be the foundation of any exercise routine, otherwise you’ll have trouble “staying on track.” When exercise is a should—not a want to, it becomes akin to punishment, particularly for those who believe they have to exercise to manage their weight. You could just as easily lose weight by eating less, as opposed to exercising more. Note: You don’t even have to exercise to lose weight. Patients in a hospital tend to lose weight, and they are not exercising at all.
If you find yourself exercising compulsively, please start paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that drive your movement. Look not at what you did, but why you did it. Do you depend on killer workouts to manipulate your emotions, reduce anxiety, and run away from loneliness? If yes, a sports psychologist could be helpful.
Weight is more than a matter of will power. People, like dogs, come is assorted sizes and shapes. No one size or shape is “best.” Is it time for a cultural change, so we can focus more on athleticism and performance, and less on body looks and weight?
At the elite level, weight-class/weight-centric athletes get stuck between a rock and a hard place. White-knuckling a restrictive diet comes with a high mental and physical cost. While the lighter athlete might be able to set personal records for a season or two (because they had been training in a heavier body), unhappiness and injuries inevitably will take a toll if the athlete tries to maintain “racing weight” all year long. A registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in sports nutrition (CSSD) can help athletes figure out appropriate weight goals and fueling strategies, so they can reach their performance goals. The lightest athlete may not be the best (nor happiest) athlete, after all.
1) Vanheest, J. et al. Ovarian Suppression Impairs Sports Performance in Junior Elite Female Swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc 46(1):156-166, 2014
Click here for additional information for compulsive exercisers.
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual exercisers and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook offers food tips that can help you fuel well. For more information, visit www.NancyClarkRD.com.