Why cant I lose weight with diet and exercise? Shedding the stress of the scale

If weight loss is about calories in and calories out, why doesn’t diet and exercise always work?  At the beginning of the pandemic, there were jokes about gaining the Quarantine 15 as people found themselves homebound, moving less, and eating more. As we adjust to the ongoing situation, many people are looking for ways to shed that weight and finding it’s only adding to their stress. Unfortunately, stress is exactly why diet and exercise don’t work. This article tells you how to address stress in a way that puts you in a state where you can shed the extra weight. 

What really causes weight gain

There are three main factors in the perfect storm of how stress makes it difficult to lose weight:   

  • The stress response creates chemical changes that tell your body to hold on to fat, by creating new fat cells and increasing storage in existing fat cells.  
  • Most of our modern day food is specifically engineered for your brain. Comfort foods flood the brain with dopamine, serotonin, and the other chemicals your brain is looking for to make you feel better when stressed. These cravings override your natural signal to eat when hungry and stop when full.   
  • Our modern culture has made exercise for weight loss more stress-producing than stress-reducing. The concept of calorie burning translates to ‘more exercise is better’, which leaves you feeling like you should be doing more, which leaves you feeling more stressed. 

That last point is the tipping point for this whole problem of weight loss, and it has nothing to do with calorie burning.  

Stress is the body preparing for movement 

We call stress a “fight or flight response” because stress is your body preparing for movement so you can attack or get away from a threat. Our modern day stressors, however, are not usually solved by attacking or physically running away, so we can get stuck in a stressed state.    

Well is the opposite of stress and is when healing and repairs happen. When moving your body and trying to get enough exercise is stress-producing, your ability to get back to that state of well where your body can lose weight is seriously limited. Diet and exercise just won’t work when they are another stressor in your life.  

Stress is not a problem, being stuck in stress is the problem

Stress is a normal part of life, but it’s not stress per say that causes weight gain, it’s the lack of opportunity to move in ways that shift your body back to a state of well. Scientists found that it’s the 24/7 stress state that signals the body to store more fat. When each stress response is balanced with something to bring you back to a state of well-being, stress does not interfere with weight loss.   

Making the shift from stressed to well

Okay, let’s look at the big picture. 

  • The stressed state is the body ready to move. 
  • Being stuck in a stressed state tells the body to hold onto fat. 
  • The main purpose of  exercise for weight loss, then, is to literally move your body out of a stressed state as often as possible each day.   

There are many brain-based ways to reduce stress, but without movement, they are incomplete. There are many ways to exercise, but if they take too much of your time or energy, or leave you feeling worse about yourself, they will not get you back to a state where weight loss happens, no matter how many calories and how much fat you burn. To make exercise work for weight loss, start by rethinking exercise from calorie burning to well-restoring.  

Your body has what it needs right now 

No matter your weight, your body still has all that it needs to improve your stamina, strength and mobility and thus your ability to feel better in every day life.   If your weight is getting in the way of you exercising, your body is not the problem, the exercises you are doing are the problem. Forcing your body to do an exercise so that some day, when you lose weight, you will feel better only backfires in the end.    Shedding the stress of the scale so diet and exercise work starts with knowing that no matter your weight, your body has what it needs to move to reduce stress and regain your stamina, strength and mobility.   You dont need to lose weight to be fit, you only need the right way to exercise for your body to be well now. 

The evidence is clear: exercise works for weight loss when it moves you from stressed to well

The exercise that is best for weight loss is the one that your body can do in a way that leaves you feeling and functioning better from the first day. That way, exercise can both reduce stress and improve your strength, stamina and mobility, so you are putting your body in a state where it can not only lose weight, but also be well.  It’s a win/win.  You get to stress less and get be well each step of the way to your healthy weight! 

Key takeaways   

  • Stress is your body preparing to move.
  • Chronic stress signals your body to store more fat weight.
  • Exercise that is not stress-producing puts your body in a well state where weight loss happens.
  • Your body already has everything it needs for you to be healthier at any weight. 
  • Exercising for weight loss means movements that fit your body, so it reduces stress and puts your body back in a state where weight loss happens

workout guide for weight loss

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Sources:

  • Bahrami-Nejad Z, Zhao ML, Tholen S, Hunerdosse D, Tkach KE, van Schie S, Chung M, Teruel MN. A Transcriptional Circuit Filters Oscillating Circadian Hormonal Inputs to Regulate Fat Cell Differentiation. Cell Metab. 2018 Apr 3;27(4)
  • Russell, G., Lightman, S. The human stress response. Nat Rev Endocrinol 15, 525–534 (2019).