the fitness middle

Last week, an article on the New York Times blog revealed the findings of a Danish study on the amount and intensity of exercise and how it relates to weight loss.

I’m paraphrasing, but basically, the study shows that, at least in men, a moderate to small amount of exercise (burning about 300 calories per workout) meant lower numbers on the scale than more vigorous workouts (around 600 calories per workout).

For some reason, this study really stuck with me, and I couldn’t figure out what it was about it for a few days. But I think I’ve figured it out now—validation. This study (right or wrong) has made me feel validated.

Honestly, this study didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I know that when I’m working out at my hardest and most intense (like while I was training for my half marathon), I eat more. I require more calories. And it feels like my body is holding onto everything I consume. I could burn 2000+ calories during a long run, only replace about half of that and still keep gaining weight. When I’m working hard on a strength regimen the number on the scale rises along with the weight of my kettlebells.

Now, on the flip side, I tend to lose my most weight when I’m doing very little to no activity at all. I consistently lose a ton of weight during weeks I never even stepped foot into the gym. And I lose my most weight when I stick to “light” activities like walking, easy hiking and yard work.

Really, my epiphany has little to do with the results of the study, but it did get me thinking about my own personal journey with fitness. So that’s where the validation part comes in—this study made me realize that I’m okay living in the fitness middle.

I’ve never really excelled at fitness. I have bursts where I’m really into one thing or another. And I pretty consistently try to stay active. But I’ll never be on the cover of a fitness magazine and I certainly won’t be setting any world records and I’ll probably never run a marathon. And because of that, I’ve always felt like I’m not doing enough. I could be doing more. I should be doing more.

I think there is this pressure out there (on men and women both) to be these amazingly fit, strong, perfect, air-brushed people. It’s not okay if you just walk. Or if you don’t lift weights. Or if you don’t run. Or if you don’t CrossFit. Or if you don’t have a gym membership. It’s like no matter what kind or frequency or intensity of exercise we do, it isn’t enough. You can’t win. You’re always supposed to be doing more and running longer distances and lifting heavier weights.

A picture is painted in the media (including blogs) that fitness is all or nothing. It’s either a switch that is on, or a switch that is off. You’re either running 30 miles a week and doing CrossFit or you’re a total couch potato. But I think for the vast majority of people, we fall somewhere in the middle.

And for the longest time, I thought that me falling somewhere in the middle was a bad thing. Why can’t I just go to the gym more? Or just run farther? Or just do a longer plank? But this study has made me think about it differently. Maybe being a moderate exerciser isn’t a bad thing. And maybe it doesn’t need to change. Maybe I’m alright just the way I am.

I’m sure there are gaggles of folks who saw that study and thought, “Sweet! If I lose weight, that means I’m healthy. And to lose weight, I need to exercise less. So yeah, let’s go sit on the couch!” But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m a big believer that weight is a terrible indicator of health. I’m definitely not condoning using this study as an excuse to skip a hardcore workout. But I do think this study might give us moderate exercisers the empowerment to accept ourselves. I’m not sure if anyone else out there feels the pressure to be a fitness super star (I do, obviously) but I’m starting to realize that it’s perfectly okay to not be a fitness super star. The fitness middle isn’t a bad place to live. And it certainly is better than no fitness at all.

I’m gonna go take a walk and be proud of my activity for the first time in a long time.

What do you think about the study? And how do you feel about moderate exercise? Do you excel at fitness or do you struggle with it like I do?


  1. Shauna says

    Oh, this post makes me happy. I’ve been talking about working in actively losing weight soon, and I kept thinking I ad to be all hardcore and join a gym and work out for two hours a day or something. But it’s just not me. It doesn’t fit in my lifestyle, and would make me unhappy. It’s good to know that I’ll be okay even if I just push the double stroller for an hour long walk every day, or do some at-home workouts that I actually enjoy.

  2. says

    Cassie, thanks for sharing the article information and your thoughts. Falling in the middle (which is a relative place – depending upon who you are) is exactly where we should be when we are juggling a whole life where only one portion of it is a fitness program. If part of one’s life is to run and excel at marathons, well, then, that should take up a major portion of your life. For those of us who are using fitness to stay healthy, then a nice balance of that with the rest of our interests and activirties of daily living is the healthiest place to be. And, as for sticking with just one thing…variety is the spice of life:) Thanks again for sharing!

  3. says

    I am a proud marathoner. I love to run. I love my community of runners. Running is a HUGE part of my identity. (you know this already.)

    But I think this is dead-on. I know that I will actually put weight on in the last month of training. My body is fatigued. I am always hungry. It is frustrating, yes, but I won’t deny what my body needs in order to be best on race day.

    25 miles a week is my magic number. Less than that and I can lose with watching my calories. Above that? I barely maintain or gain a smidge no matter what I eat.

    It has been a strange process for me. I have to temporarily let go of weight loss goals to be a stronger runner. and I forget that until I get in the middle of it.

    That is a huge part of why I embraced the Numbers Challenge. Staying off the scale right now is a great thing!

  4. says

    Hmmm, I must be an odd duck because I lose weight while training for my half marathons and other vigorous training. I think that might because I’m aware that I could potentially eat more than I need (because you feel ravenous all the time), so I try not to over do-it with extra calories. Before I train, I look to see how many calories I SHOULD be taking in with all of the exercise, and stick with that. Or, when I feel like I still need to stuff my face, I load up on veggies or other low cal snacks.

    All bodies are different. It totally depends on the person and how your body burns energy and stores fat (in my opinion).

    But I totally agree that finding a balance is key! I tend to overdue my training and I’m starting to learn that it’s not the end of the world if I’m not dropping 1500 cals each time I run. Just getting your heart rate up and burning more than you consume during the day is the not-so-secret to losing a few pounds!

  5. says

    That’s a really interesting study!! Thanks for linking it. I think that’s definitely true in my husband’s case. He runs occasionally and often bikes to work — and that works for him. I do a little higher intensity and have a little more difficulty… in some ways. ButI can’t imagine giving it up. Lol.

  6. Lola says

    As someone who’s lost quite a bit of weight through vigorous exercise and calorie restriction it’s really hard for me to wrap my head around this concept. Though I’ve been getting better at it. I went in for a BodPod test a few months ago and the trainer that did my test told me that I don’t need to go absolutely crazy with the exercise in order to see results. He told me that moderate exercise is better for me than balls out crazy exercise like Crossfit and marathon running. I had just completed a half marathon and this was exactly what I needed to hear. I didn’t LIKE exercising like crazy. To me it’s much more achievable and a much more realistic long term goal to exercise moderately. I just can’t keep up running two plus hours every weekend and an hour on the week days. That’s not sustainable.

    I’m glad that you’ve posted about this. It seems like it’s a somewhat new thought on the whole exercise and I hope more people take it into account in their daily exercise regime.

  7. says

    I love this because I am a FIRM believer that you do not have to exercise for long periods of time to see great results. As a matter of fact, I keep most of my workouts between 20-40 minutes and I see the best results when I do that. Part of it is because I do tend to eat less than when I am burning mass amounts of calories but also because I am more likely to stay consistent.

    More than anything, consistency is key in my book!! Whether it be for weight loss or health related benefits, you have to continue doing it for it to be effective. Most people are capable of sticking to just 20-30 minutes of exercise but when you talk about doing 45 minutes + every day, it can be daunting and easy to find excuses to skip out on it.

  8. says

    I wouldn’t say that I excel at fitness but I love it and I incorporate it into my life every day. I love trying to improve on my fitness level. Either by lifting heavier weight or doing more reps or running faster or running farther. I like to see my progress going up because it really makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. Which, I guess, in a way means that I want to be in the fitness elite not in the fitness middle. But I don’t feel external pressure… mostly it’s internal motivation.

  9. Lina says

    I also don’t excel at fitness. Last year, I was training for my first half marathon, and I was following a training plan that required me to run 4-5 times a week. I was able to do that for the first three weeks… lol, then I realized I couldn’t sustain it, because life was just too busy and it stressed me out, not only physically, but also mentally, to fit all those workouts in. I reduced my workouts to 3 runs a week, and guess what, I finished my half marathon just fine 😉

    (oh, and I figured I could use my half marathon training to lose some weight… that didn’t happen. I totally gained… ~_~)

  10. says

    I’m with you Cassie! My weight struggle has been long and arduous. There were times I worked out for multiple hours per day and never lost a lb. Of course, my eating wasn’t that great either, but it was ALWAYS forced. I rarely felt “great” or “energized” after those super intense workouts. I feel better knowing I did something good for myself, but it is ALWAYS forced. As I have gotten older I have taken a more moderate approach. Yes, I understand I should workout consistently, but I give myself props for ANYthing I do that gets me moving. Gardening, going for a walk, a hike, a round of golf…whatever. I like being fit, but honestly, I am never going to be a marathoner or a CrossFit queen. And, I’m okay with it. Great post!! Thank you for sharing and being so real with us.

  11. Jen in MN says

    I love this post; the concept resonates with me, too. While I enjoy running, it is within a balance of other activities, and I’ve only done shorter distances (usually 3-6 miles). I like yoga (and not the super hardcore hot yoga either), walking, elliptical, shorter DVD/strength workouts, etc. All in balance. I want to exercise in a way that I can generally stick with for life. Spending an hour or more a day exercising just isn’t realistic (nor desirable!) for me most days. And I am A-ok with that.

    I have 2 little girls and my goal is to model for them a generally-healthy, balanced lifestyle of eating well and exercising moderately. Making it all fit within your life so that it’s not this big, huge *thing* you have to grudgingly try to make room for every day.

    Thanks for a great post! I am happy being a part of the “fitness middle.” (-:

  12. Heather says

    I don’t excel at fitness for sure. I usually need some kind of outside source to help me out – a buddy to go on a run with or a personal trainer for example. I love the way I feel after I’m done the workout but getting myself motivated to do it can be another story. But I often feel that I need to go balls to the wall in every workout in order for the work out to be worth it and that is definitely not the case – especially since if I kept that up, I’d never go back.

    Right now I’m working with a trainer 3 days a week and burning usually around 400-450 calories a workout plus one day where I do something else for around the same or less of a burn. And I feel great – minimal aches and pains, I have energy, I look forward to the next workout and I’m losing weight while still eating a reasonable amount of calories a day.

    I have a long way to go to make my goal but if I can do that while being “in the middle” and enjoying myself and the process, then I’ve definitely won. Thanks for sharing the article!

  13. says

    Walking is my favorite workout! I typically go for 3-miles and burn around 250-300 calories and it’s how I lost 80 pounds. Pushing yourself can be fun and rewarding, but it’s definitely not the answer for weight loss, and it’s not for everyone!

  14. says

    I’ll be interested to go and read that article!
    Wow- what you wrote about training for the half marathon and not eating the calories burned and still gaining weight- I 100% relate to that! I’ve gone through major exercise addiction, which made me pack on the pounds like crazy. And I kept thinking that if I just did more, I would lose weight eventually… not the case. I’ve gone from exercising about 20+ hours a week to around 10 or so (and 8 of those hours are when I’m paid to teach Spinning, Bodypump, etc.). I know it may sound like a lot to some people, but I’ve come a long way, and always take at least one full rest day.
    Being “in the middle” sounds pretty good (and healthy) to me- and my favorite “exercise” of all time is still hiking!

  15. says

    I can 100% relate to this. Currently I’m running but feeling guilty about “just” running. When I think about lifting weights and doing all kinds of circuit training, I just want to lie down. But I love running. Not running obscene amounts, but a few miles here and there, just like I did when I first started running. I think I’ve been looking for validation to just do what feels good and to hell with the rest, so thank you for giving me that.

  16. says

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this article. I couldn’t agree more. I gained weight after Hubster and I got married (not a ton, but I wasn’t happy). I turned to Weight Watchers to kick start my eating and adopted a really great workout routine. Fast forward to now – I’ve put on a few pounds and have so many other commitments in life that workouts have taken a back seat. And, yet, I’m still pretty happy. I’d love to lose a few pounds and try to keep that in mind when I do workout or make choices on what food to eat. But mostly, I’m ok if I weigh a bit more, but enjoy a bottle of wine with Hubster. For me, life is too short to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to hit a number on a scale. :)

  17. Lo the Phoenix says

    For many reasons, I’ve been on a down cycle with the fitness thing. I’ve learned for myself that sometimes I just have to let myself feel how I feel without forcing it. Last Spring I ran two 5Ks at a slow but reasonable pace. I got my bestie into running, and I feel like I’m abandoning her. I tried to get back to it the other day and I was very disappointed with how much of my ability I had lost. But I think it was more that really, deep down, I didn’t want to do it. I don’t want to run right now. I’ve been taking long walks with my dog and taking Zumba, etc, but still feeling guilty that I don’t want to wake up 5am anymore to run. Maybe I should just try to get over the guilt and see what I DO feel like doing.


    • says

      Absolutely! I’ve been struggling with the same guilt. I decided to shake up my normal routine (time logged on the elliptical or treadmill) and go for a more crossfit approach. I’m so much more into my workouts now and have started looking forward to them. You may come back to running, but in the meantime you should just enjoy what you love right now :)

  18. says

    I agree with you–I think there’s a lot of people in the fitness “middle.” If you think about it, it would be hard for a person to lose weight working out at their absolute maximum because the body is in almost survival mode, so it wouldn’t be inclined to give up any resources. A moderate level of exercise, with some occasional challenges and variety, seems a lot more attainable and something that a person can stick to in the long run. After all, the whole point of fitness is to be able to live a healthy, balanced life. :)

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