As surely as night follows day, January will see gyms everywhere packed with newbies as resolutions to fight the flab take hold. Treadmills, cross-trainers and rowing machines that lay idle in December will attract queues of new members impatient to shed the results of their festive over-indulgence.
If you're planning on being one of those newbies (or you've become one already), here is one big reason why you shouldn't join a gym and another big one why you should.
But before that, recognise that you did NOT become overweight between Christmas and New Year! It actually happened between January and December! Putting on fat is due to consistently being in an energy surplus (consuming more calories from food and drink than you expend in all your activity) over an extended period of time.
If you ate an excess of 500 calories a day for the two weeks of Christmas you'd gain just two pounds (less than a kilo) of body fat. But continue that habit until NEXT Christmas and you'd put on 23.5kg, almost four stone, in fat.
1. DON'T join a gym to lose fat
Regular exercise is great for us. It improves our mood, self-esteem, energy levels and sleep quality. It reduces stress and the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, dementia and depression.
Further, if we are inactive we burn barely more calories than our bodies use to just tick over and it's very easy therefore to be in an energy (calorie) surplus and start storing body fat.
HOWEVER, for a lot of people joining a gym to spend an hour on the treadmill or rower is NOT the best way to get rid of body fat. In fact, it can prove to be a very poor strategy for weight loss.
Why? Because it takes a HELL OF A LOT of exercise to burn a significant number of calories, which are wiped out the next time you put food in your mouth.
Almost regardless of the speed at which you run, an average person will burn about 100 calories per mile. An hour on the treadmill at 10 minutes per mile will therefore burn about 600 calories.
LUNCH AT PRET: 720 calories. AN HOUR ON THE TREADMILL: 600 calories.
If you then lunch on a Pret chicken and avocado sandwich (484 calories) your lunchtime calorie deficit is almost gone. Add a 'healthy' Berry Blast smoothie (240 calories) and you can see that your slog in the gym wasn't quite the fat-burner you'd hoped.
Of course, you shouldn't be thinking about a calorie surplus or deficit on a meal-by-meal basis (see point 3 below) but rather of your total energy balance on a daily or weekly basis.
Other reasons why exercise may not be a good fat-burning strategy for you:
1. If you don't actually like doing scheduled activities (like running, rowing or swimming) then the chances are you'll give them up.
2. If you have a busy job, putting aside 45-60minutes every day could be very hard to achieve.
3. If you're new to exercise and you're using it to reduce body fat, it can lead you into a mindset where you end up trying to offset or mitigate the effects of exercise with food, along the lines of: “I just burned 600 calories on the treadmill so I can eat more now.” That way of thinking is almost certain to put you back into a calorie surplus.
4. Exercising makes a lot people hungry, so you could end up eating more than you normally would and putting yourself into an even bigger overall calorie surplus than if you hadn't gone to the gym in the first place.
LESSON: Rather than try and 'burn' calories through formal, scheduled exercise, it is much more effective and infinitely quicker to simply not eat the calories in the first place. In other words, use nutrition as your prime weapon in the fight against fat.
That certainly doesn't mean we should aim to be sedentary (remember all those amazing benefits of exercise above plus the fact that going to the gym may make encourage you to make better food choices). But increasing our activity (especially our step count) throughout the day is a much easier way to build exercise more effortlessly into our lives. Walking to and from work (or from a more distant bus stop), taking the stairs and going for a walk at lunchtime are simple, realistic, sustainable ways to increase activity. Ten thousand steps a day is a great target.
REMEMBER: If you can put yourself into a consistent calorie deficit of 500 below 'maintenance' (what your body needs to maintain the same body weight) and you will lose 12 pounds (5.5kg) in three months.
To estimate your maintenance calories based on your activity level, use our Bodyscan calculator.
2. DO join a gym to improve the quality of your fat loss
So, if I want to lose weight, I should steer clear of the gym?
No! Because you don't want to lose weight. You want to lose fat!
If you're on a calorie-restricted diet (ie, eating fewer calories that you expend) you want to be sure that most, if not all, of your weight loss is actually fat and not muscle.
To preserve muscle when in a calorie deficit you need to do resistance training and ensure you have sufficient protein in your diet (a good rule of thumb is 2g per kilo of body weight).
That means bypassing the treadmills and using free weights (dumbbells and barbells) or weight-machines. The process of building muscle is more complex, variable and takes longer than losing fat, but suffice to say that the weights room is the main reason you should join a gym if fat loss is your goal.
LESSON: Resistance training and nutrition are the best tools for you to look better in the buff.
Happy New Year!