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Could going to the gym be making you fatter?

From: Va Voom Health,

Could going to the gym be making you fatter?

As featured in the Daily Mail

X weeks ago you made your New Year’s resolution to lose weight. You’ve cut out all the snacks, chocolate is but a distant memory and you’ve dragged yourself to the gym every day. So, why, when you were expecting by now to resemble Nicole Kidman after a nasty stomach bug, do you still look like Dawn French without the jokes?

The awful truth for every New Year dieter is that going to the gym does not make you thin. It may even have the opposite effect. Going to the gym could actually make you fatter. This will have personal trainers chewing their pongy insoles in fury, but there is sound science behind the theory that gym-going far from helping people shed pounds, could actually impede weight loss.

The problem is the kind of exercise most dieters favour. Most eschew the weights area, inhabited by its hard core of scary looking men, knuckles grazing the carpet.

'Women can have a block about weights,' says Clinical Psychologist Victor Thompson, who runs a specialist sports psychology practice. 'The fact is, many assume we have to be big and butch to lift weights, or, if we're not, that's how we'll end up looking if we so much as pick up a bar bell.'

So, your average dieter goes hell for leather on the treadmill, rowing machine or cross trainer. Thompson explains:. ‘People see getting a sweat on as the way to burn calories’. The exercise dieters tend to choose get a sweat up is cardiovascular (CV) exercise. This is the sort of exercise that works the big muscles of the body, for example the legs. It makes the heart work harder to pump more oxygenated blood to the muscles, so the lungs have to take in more air to provide this oxygen, which is why you feel out of breath.

However, while cardiovascular exercise might feel exhausting, the calories it burns are pretty pathetic. Thirty minutes on the rowing machine burns just 300 calories. That's 50 calories less than a 100g slice of pepperoni pizza.

Second, your appetite may adjust to a gym habit. 'Your appetite goes up when you start to exercise,' says David Archer, lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of Sunderland. 'Your body is telling you it needs more calories, so you eat more.'

What excess cardiovascular exercise may also do is cause us to break down important lean tissue as the body struggles to generate energy. This will then slow down our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - the rate at which we burn calories just going about daily life.

'Fat is pretty inactive,' explains Archer. 'Lean tissue is four to five times more active, and burns more calories at rest.' So, the more muscle you have, the higher your BMR. Losing lean tissue through excess cardiovascular exercise could set up the classic yo-yo dieting situation. You lose a huge amount of weight by going to the gym four times a week - but the moment you slacken off, the weight piles back on because you now have less muscle and a lower BMR.

And then there are the hormonal changes. 'Exercise causes rises in hormones, such as cortisol and growth hormones,' says Professor Paul Stewart, consultant endocrinologist at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.

Some experts have suggested a link between an excess of cortisol and fat storage. The theory is that cortisol, as a stress hormone, is designed to prepare our bodies for 'fight or flight'. To do this, we need a ready supply of energy. So cortisol acts to raise our blood sugar through the production of new glucose (sugar) from protein and fat in the liver. Raised blood sugar stimulates the release of the hormone, insulin, which can then lead to fat storage.

And that's just the start of your worries. Prof Stewart and his team at Birmingham University have been doing research into cortisol and its link to the body's metabolism. They have found that fat tissue itself, particularly the fat that many of us store round the middle, can actually manufacture cortisol, 'thereby promoting ongoing obesity'. So, in theory, fat can actually make you even fatter.

You could at this point be forgiven for wanting to forget the whole gym thing. Still, there is a major caveat. Prof Stewart says: 'The gym culture is good for cardiovascular health.' So those punishing sessions on the treadmill or exercise bike are still important for our hearts and lungs. And in terms of weight loss, it might not be time to throw in the gym towel, either. It could simply be a case of switching to the weights area of the gym.

Resistance exercise, such as lifting bar bells or working-out on weight machines, builds up lean tissue, therefore boosting BMR. Some of the hormonal responses to cardiovascular and resistance exercise may also differ.

Victor Thompson suggests three cardio and two resistance training sessions a week. He also advises steering clear of weight machines and going for dumb bells instead. 'With a machine, you don't have to use your core stability muscles. Aim for sets of 8 to 12 repetitions in each exercise.'

Prof Stewart has an even simpler solution: 'Long lasting weight reduction will only be achieved by a change in the balance between food intake and energy expenditure. What about a walk 30 minutes after every meal to help stabilise blood sugar? Gentle exercise may help us cope with the metabolic consequences of a meal.'

Now, doesn't that sound more attractive than half-killing yourself on the rowing machine?

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Lowri is a journalist, nutritionist and hypnotherapist, specialising in weight loss, skin and anti-ageing. Her business, Va Voom Health, offers a rare and unique service using both hypnotherapy and nutritional advice to get you the body you want. Whether you're trying to lose weight with one diet after the next or your skin is crying out for help, Lowri has a personalised approach that can help you reach the right balance.

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