Exercise will not make you happy

In mortal life there are some universal truths. The sky above, the ground below; though, I suppose even that can be rebuked by an astronaut (or someone flying on ridiculous ‘space’ flights laid on by egomaniacal billionaires—I’m not fussy who you imagine that to be, but there are three of them). Such fleeting rarities aside, there are truths to which the vast majority of human experience has been conditioned to accept. Most make sense, most are there to keep us in line and temper our expectations; for without realistic ambition, humanity would be chaos.

In my industry, we sell a lie every day. In fact, we sell more than one. That’s not to say we do it with malice or malcontent. No, the messages the fitness industry delivers to the masses are there to ‘align’ expectation to the upper margins of what you may one day achieve. The problem with the messages we deliver is that they miss out so much of what will hamper you, what will disappoint you, and ultimately, what may defeat you.

A conservative estimate from my own experience would be that 90%+ of all gym users attend their local torture centre for one primary purpose—to lose weight. We are told this through almost every portion of practically every media source: exercise and weight loss go hand-in-hand. This message is foisted upon the many to elicit a response of exercise compliance, but—shock horror—it’s just not true.  I’m sure you’re trying to grapple with this statement. To make it super easy, I’ll lay it out in practical thermodynamics. And, I’ve covered this before. In fact, I’ve probably hoodwinked you in an earlier article. Well, if I did, clearly, I lied. People assume if they jump on a bike, go for a 5km run, or do some weights a few times a week, they’ll see a tangible metamorphosis. However, three weekly sessions might only make use of 1000 Kcals (if you’re being enthusiastic). Across the scope of one week, I can easily consume that 1000 Kcals. If starting exercise from scratch, you might actually end up eating more food to compensate for the sudden energy demands. Post work-out ‘munchies’, if you prefer. This is the first inconvenient truth: exercise uses energy that can be replaced far too easily. If you replace what you ‘burn off’, you’ll find it very awkward to shift the blubber.

So, given exercise on its own won’t work—surely dieting will? Absolutely. However, that also falls into the realm of thermodynamics and energy conservation. If you were consuming a stable calorific intake and your weight was also stable, then a reduction in calories would facilitate weight loss. Notice, I don’t say fat loss. Dieting alone will result in the body being unscrupulous with where it finds the calories it needs. Fatty tissue, stored carbohydrates (glycogen), and protein (muscle tissue), will all be catabolised in a low-calorie environment. But hey—at least you will lose weight. For a while. Once again, practical physiologically will kick in. As your body sheds weight, the energy cost to mobilise and move around is reduced; whether it be shopping for soulless diet food or having a depressingly fatiguing work-out, you’ll be expending fewer calories. The truth is, as you get lighter, you need less food, therefore your diet becomes less effective. To lose more weight, you need to eat even less, and that’s not really something to be enthusiastic about.

If you’ve got some smarts you’ll be shouting at the screen, telling me that you need to do exercise and diet to lose weight. And yes, that is true. There are some in the scientific field, however, who rally against that approach and suggest obesity is not affected by diet or exercise. They point to hormonal imbalances and other factors that result in becoming heavily overweight. Suffice to say, I disagree and while I accept there are some cases where metabolic disorders affect weight, the vast majority of cases are bound by thermodynamic laws (energy balance is everything). My case is very simple: the prevalence of obesity is a modern condition. It can only be found in cultures with an abundance of calorific food. Obesity exists because we have the capacity to over-consume. Case in point to shock the system: There were no obese prisoners of war. It’s a grim statement to make but it validates the case for thermodynamics. As does famine, drought, and any number of horrendous human inflicted atrocities throughout the ages. There’s no way I can make this a humorous point. But it is damming evidence to argue against obesity as a purely hormonal defect. No food = death.

The above paragraph started with the obvious statement: exercise and diet will help weight loss. Mostly true. But once again, there are calorific realities: How much exercise, at what intensity, and how strict is the diet? These things matter. Cutting down on pies while walking an extra mile won’t do a great deal. Run a marathon instead and there will be fairly rapid changes but that would be a drastic step. Which conveniently leads to the opening title.

Exercise will not make you happy. If it does, I’d suggest you see a psychologist. Exercise is a tool, much as a brace helps to straighten teeth, or a bone lengthening operation will grant someone an extra inch in height. Are they fun? Perhaps for the sadistic doctor involved but for the patient, I’d imagine the answer is a resounding ‘NO’. The end result is the gain. And yes, while some will say ‘but I love exercise’, I would say to you—awesome—you’ve got it made. But to sell that as a thing; to suggest to the wider audience that it is fun becoming hot and sweaty, to experience fatigue and muscle pain, is a great mistruth. Exercise is anathema to species survival and while in nature it is used by certain animals to develop ‘skills’, this can only happen when calories allow. Exercise for its own purpose is an unnatural state of being. Games and socialising are fundamental to a human experience but the exercise part is just a tool. And those in my field, or those who read this blog and tout various solutions to their own readers need to understand that. For thousands of years we have survived, learning how to conserve resources and energy. We’re primed to store the damn stuff (calories) but in evolutionary terms, we’re loathe to use it up (it is why we put on fat so easily—it is what nature intends).   

If we want to improve ourselves, or we want to help someone else to do so, the primary focus needs to be: What will I, or they, enjoy doing? Exercise and diet are only tools—they are not solutions. The solution is more holistic and more personal. On top of all of that, you’ve also got the motivational unicorn to contend with (another story altogether – link might be broken on mobile, post from March 2021).

What is today’s lesson? The fitness industry likes to massage the harder truths. Most ‘life’ or gym coaches think you’re just like them, when the last thing you want is to run a marathon or eat Gwang-Gwang berries (not a real thing – don’t bother with Google). People are unique and exercise isn’t fun. Diets suck and so does preaching.

Go have fun. When we stop fussing over perfection, we’ll all be so much happier.