It's easy to overestimate the power of exercise to help weight loss, especially if you increase your fitness regime at the same time you embark on a diet. The weight begins to drop, and the running shoes get to take a victory lap. It feels as if you're just burning those pounds off. Then: the infamous plateau.
"Chasing a calorie deficit via cardio often becomes the primary goal of exercise for diet newbies," writes Cindy Hatcher in the May issue of Cooking Light. "That continues until they reach a plateau, at which point the scale refuses to budge." This is the danger point: It's tempting to let the fitness regimen slide a bit—yet that not only makes getting off the plateau a bit harder but denies you many of the other benefits of exercise.
I like Yoni Freedhoff's take on this on his Weighty Matters blog. Freedhoff is author of The Diet Fix, and says the idea that you can "outrun your fork" is one of the central myths of weight loss. He writes:
"80% of your modifiable weight is likely determined by your dietary choices leaving only 20% for your fitness choices. While exercise has truly fantastic health benefits and markedly mitigates the risks of weight, you're far more likely to lose weight in your kitchen than you are in your gym, and if you're exercising solely for the purpose of weight management, you run the risk of quitting perhaps the single healthiest behaviour you could adopt if and when the scales don't fly down. Unless you plan on spending a heroic part of each and every day running, you're not going to outrun your fork."
Hatcher makes a similar point in the magazine: Fitness has many benefits independent of weight loss, and it's wise to incorporate strength training along with cardio. Muscle-building has a lot of health benefits beyond the calorie burn.
I'm not sure about the 80/20 rule—it must vary with each person—but using fitness devices like the UP band and calorie-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal revealed this truth on day one: My 10,000 daily steps, even if they included a four-mile run, were not, on their own, going to get me to my weight goal.
However, a second truth emerged: The 10,000 steps were "buying" me enough extra calories in the day to make the diet itself sustainable. From the start, the philosophy of the Social Diet was that we—food lovers all of us—would not accept a regimen that diminished our enjoyment of food. If I wasn't going to outrun the fork, I could optimize it with exercise.
Which is why I managed to power through the plateau and get to goal: I'd found a sort of homeostasis between the pain and pleasures of fitness and the pain and pleasures of eating less while eating well.