Weight loss is a common topic with clients that I come into contact with and one of the first questions I get asked is, “Do you have to do cardio to lose weight?!”
I recognize that weight is just one measure of overall health, but it is one that many of my clients are concerned with. If this describes you, then this article is for you! Achieving a healthy weight (for YOU), eating nutritious foods, and being physically are important topics with TONS of nuance.
And as I’m sure you know, there is so much more to the old adage: eat less, move more.
Weight loss is very challenging for many reasons:
- There is an abundance of food available around most of us 24/7
- Eating isn’t just something we do for sustenance; it’s gratification, a social activity, and sometimes even a reward
- Computers and cars, etc. have contributed to a much more sedentary lifestyle—we don’t all need to be physically active farmers to survive anymore
- Reducing calories voluntarily is really, really hard; it’s a huge challenge to change habits
- Many diets work in the short term, but fail later on because they’re simply unsustainable
- After losing weight, maintaining weight loss is extremely difficult (and this is particularly true for women after menopause)
As a caveat, I want to make sure that you understand that weight loss for athletes may not be the best idea. Losing weight should never be the focus of an in-season athlete due to the potential for low energy availability. It’s important to discuss any weight loss strategies or plans with your dietitian or healthcare team before beginning!
Now, let’s go over some strategies to overcome the challenges of weight loss.
What is metabolism and how can I lose weight?
Your weight is based on several factors, some are controllable and others are not. For example, your genetics, family history, and hormones can impact your weight, but there’s not too much you can do to significantly change those. On the other hand, how much and what you eat, the medications you’re taking, the amount of stress you’re under, and how much sleep and physical activity you get also contribute to weight, and are a bit more controllable (albeit not completely controllable).
Here’s where metabolism fits with weight. There are so many things that your body does at rest: breathing, pumping blood, adjusting hormone levels, maintaining your body temperature, and growing and repairing cells. The amount of energy (calories) your body uses to perform these essential functions is called your “basal metabolic rate.” Overall, your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or metabolism, accounts for about two-thirds of the calories your body burns each and every day.
“Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Your metabolism is influenced mostly by your body size and composition. This means that people who are bigger and/or have heavier bones and more muscle mass burn more calories at rest. Because men tend to be bigger and have more muscle, they naturally tend to have a higher metabolism than women. This also goes for younger people. Because bone and muscle mass naturally tend to decrease (and fat mass naturally tends to increase) with age, if you don’t take steps to maintain bone and muscle mass, your metabolism likely will decrease which results in increased weight.
Certain medical conditions can also affect your metabolism. For example the hormonal conditions of Cushing’s syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), or hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) can slow your metabolism down. These conditions often come with a range of other symptoms beyond just weight gain. If you suspect that you have an underlying medical condition, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor or healthcare professional about tests to confirm these diagnoses.
A slow metabolism may be one factor that influences your weight, but it’s not the only one. How your body processes what you eat or drink and how active you are also play roles in your weight. The process of digesting food burns calories. About 10 percent of the calories in carbohydrates and protein are used to digest them. Plus, the amount of physical activity you do also accounts for some of the calories you burn every day.
While some people may gain or lose weight easier than others, in general, the balance of your “energy equation” counts for your weight. That is, the amount of energy (calories) you take in minus the amount of energy (calories) you burn can determine whether you gain or lose weight.
Do you have to do cardio to lose weight? Real weight loss strategies
Before you start a weight-loss program, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider. Many weight-loss products or programs can be harmful depending on your current state of health and goals. Be particularly wary of products or programs that promise quick, long-lasting, or effortless weight loss.
Your behaviors and habits have a huge influence on your weight and you are empowered to adjust them as you see fit. It’s recommended that if you experience overweight or obesity and want to lose weight, try cutting 500 calories per day from what you eat. And, if you can add in some of these other strategies (including adding physical activity) you may be able to reach your weight-loss goals even faster.
Here are my top six strategies for weight loss/maintenance:
1 – Set specific, realistic, forgiving goals
- Instead of a goal to “lose weight,” try smaller and more specific goals that you can attain.
- Daily or weekly goals can be, for example, to cook a vegetable-rich meal on the weekend, decrease food cues (hiding cookies out of sight or disregarding food ads), or walk at least 30 minutes a day for at least 5 days a week.
- Try to stick with a new habit for at least a week or two to start making it routine. Then when one habit becomes consistent, add another one.
- Remember, it’s not uncommon to take 6 months to lose 5% of your body weight, so that may be a more realistic goal to aim for.
2 – Ditch the “diet” mentality and focus on making lasting improvements for sustainable health
- Focus on improving your food choices for overall health, rather than “dieting” for weight loss.
- Enjoy lots of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.
- Replace saturated and trans fats with healthier choices such as olive oil, nut butters, avocadoes.
3 – Try eating a different way and see what works for you
- Ideally, each meal should take at least 20 minutes to eat, so eat slower. Enjoy your food more and listen for fullness cues that subtly signal when you’re getting satisfied and it’s time to stop eating.
- Eat more mindfully by focusing on and enjoying what you’re eating while you’re eating it. Pay attention to your food’s smell, taste, and texture as you’re eating it.
- Try putting your fork down or sipping water between bites and thoroughly chewing before swallowing.
- If you have a habit of snacking in front of the TV or computer screen, try getting used to replacing that with a glass of water or unsweetened beverage instead.
4 – You don’t have to do exercise to be more physically active (but you can)
- Boost your activity; move for at least 30 minutes per day (even three 10 minute sessions can help); more movement can bring greater benefits.
- Aerobic activity (e.g., walking, bicycling, etc.) is the most efficient way to burn calories.
- Weight training (e.g., using weights or pushing your body against gravity) builds your muscles which increases your metabolic rate; ideally you’d include at least two weight training sessions per week.
- Don’t forget you don’t have to do “exercise” to be physically active, you can take the stairs more often, park further away, walk a bit faster, or do housework or gardening—they all count toward your physical activity.
- Fidgeting counts, too. Your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), like shaking a leg, tapping a foot, or even twirling a pen, also burns some calories.
- Remember that any physical activity is better for your health (and weight loss goals) than none.
5 – Reward your successes
- According to the National Institutes of Health, “frequent small rewards, earned for meeting smaller goals, are more effective than bigger rewards that require a long, difficult effort.”
- Each time you reach a goal, however small, reward your success with a non-food activity or item.
- For example, you may want to buy yourself that book, movie, music, or game that you’ve wanted for a while. Or re-read, re-watch, or re-listen to an old favorite.
- Perhaps you can put a small amount of money away to save up for a larger reward.
- Rewards don’t have to be monetary. You can take some time for yourself like have a bath, do your nails, or enjoy a craft or hobby you love (or try a new one).
- Maybe you’d prefer some time to watch comedy skits or funny animal videos online.
6 – Persevere
- Losing weight is very hard and most people have to keep trying before they find a way that works for them.
- Every day is a new day. If you go off track, get back on track and try again.
- Don’t give up. A study published in September 2020 found that trying to lose weight over and over again (also known as “weight cycling”) can significantly reduce your risk of dying. According to the National Institutes of Health, “repeatedly losing and regaining weight was better than giving up after one or two attempts or, worse still, never trying to lose weight at all.”
For some quick and easy meal plans to follow that are also totally customizable, check out what I’ve got here!
While weight is but one measure of health, it is a big concern for many people. Losing weight is not easy. Your metabolism is influenced by many different factors—some you can’t control (e.g., your genes) and others you can (e.g., what and how you eat).
The fundamentals of weight loss include enjoying healthier, nutritious foods more often and being more physically active, but there are so many approaches that help you make this happen for you. The way you approach dieting and eating, the way you set your goals and reward yourself, and the way you persevere are all totally customizable so you can try and see what works for you.
For a nutritious approach to metabolism and your weight, consult a specialized Registered Dietitian who can work with your concerns and dietary restrictions. I can help. Here is my link to book a chat about making sure to meet your dietary needs.
Harvard Health. (2018, May). Burning calories without exercise. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/burning-calories-without-exercise
Harvard Health. (2018, July). Small tricks to help you shed pounds and keep them off. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/small-tricks-to-help-you-shed-pounds-and-keep-them-off
Harvard Health. (2019, March 19). The lowdown on thyroid slowdown. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-lowdown-on-thyroid-slowdown
Harvard Health. (2019, November 20). Building simple habits for healthy weight loss. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/building-simple-habits-for-healthy-weight-loss
Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2019, February 21). Is a slow metabolism the reason I’m overweight? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/expert-answers/slow-metabolism/faq-20058480
Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2019, February 21). Can I boost my metabolism to lose weight? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/expert-answers/metabolism/faq-20058346
Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2020, November 10). Metabolism and weight loss: How you burn calories. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/metabolism/art-20046508
NIH Intramural Research Program. (2020, Dec 8). Attempting Weight Loss Linked to Reduced Risk of Death. Retrieved from https://irp.nih.gov/blog/post/2020/12/attempting-weight-loss-linked-to-reduced-risk-of-death
NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Healthy. (2017, September). Weight Control. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/weight-control
NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Aim for a healthy weight. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/index.htm
NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Guide to Behavior Change. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/behavior.htm