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What to Expect – and Not to Expect – From Exercise

I’ve been having fun recently watching old episodes of the Penn & Teller show Bullshit on Hulu. It’s an unusual show, looking at various practices and beliefs of things that many people think are true but may not be. They cover a wide range of subjects, from alien abductions to the war on drugs to safety concerns.

One episode that especially caught my attention was titled “Exercise vs. Genetics.” It looked at what exercise can or can’t do when you factor in genetics.

It got me thinking about what you can get from exercise – and what you probably shouldn’t expect.

What You Won’t Get from Exercise

Most people expect a couple of things when they exercise: muscle gain and weight loss.

Gaining Muscle

Penn & Teller focused on the muscle aspect of it, and they looked at the three main body types:

  • Ectomorph: these are those long, lean people who look like they’d be ideal runners and who seem like they can eat anything without gaining weight

  • Endomorph: on the other side, these folks tend to be heavier, with a higher likelihood of storing body fat, and they seem to gain weight almost no matter what

  • Mesomorph: muscular people with a strong build, who have a high, active metabolism

Of course, you might also fall between these groups, but this gives you a good sense of the types of bodies people have based on their genes. And it turns out your genetic body type significantly influences the results you’ll see from exercise.

Take ectomorphs. These are skinny folks kind of like Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America but before he was Captain America. People like this can go to the gym and use protein powders, etc., but they won’t look like bodybuilders the way a mesomorph will. Neither will endomorphs, although for opposite reasons.

Also along those lines, according to an article in The New York Times, studies have shown that even people who exercise a lot don’t always become fit, or at least not as fit as you might think. It’s based largely on genetics.

For some reason, I hadn’t known about these different body types before or how genetics factors in, but suddenly a lot of things made sense. My mom, for example, was a pretty active person, and she mostly ate nutritious foods. But she always had a bit of cushioning. No one would ever look at her and think she was a weight lifter.

And personally, even when I went to the gym and was at my most fit, I never had any real muscle definition. (Much to my annoyance.)

Losing Weight

Then there’s the losing weight aspect. A lot of people want to exercise to lose weight, but it doesn’t tend to work the way you’d like.

When you reduce your calories, you might lose weight, but some of that comes from muscle as well as fat. If you exercise to keep up your muscle mass, you won’t lose that weight, and you might also be hungrier, leading you to eat more and still not lose weight.

In other words, exercise is not an automatic way to change your body shape or size in a significant way.

Given that, I like Penn & Teller’s suggestion to make peace with your genetic body type and accept who you are.

What You Can Expect from Exercise

Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t exercise, but if you do, it helps to look for other changes, not muscle gain or weight loss.

From a physical perspective, while you might not get a certain body shape, you likely will change your body composition. Just because you don’t slim down or suddenly have bulging muscles doesn’t mean that you’re not losing fat or increasing some muscle or improving your stamina.

You’ll also have better energy. It seems counterintuitive since you’re spending energy to exercise, but regular activity boosts your energy levels and keeps you going. Exercise can also help regulate your sleep – and that will also give you more energy.

Exercise can help you deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. This is especially true if you get outside, where you have the combined benefits of nature and exercise to help you relax and lift your mood.

Another benefit is that exercise can help you become resilient. For myself, I know that if I’m feeling down or am facing something emotionally difficult, going for a walk helps enormously. It lets me burn off some of the energy from whatever I’m dealing with, and it gets me out of my head somewhat, so I’m not dwelling on the situation as much. Then I can deal with things better.

And finally, regular exercise can increase your self-esteem. While you might not be able to lift huge weights, you’ll start to realize that you’re more capable than you might have thought, and you’ll likely feel a sense of accomplishment. All of these things can boost your self-image.

Focus on What Exercise Can Give You

Now that we’re halfway through winter (at least according to the calendar), you might be thinking about exercising more. At least, the longer daylight hours might encourage you to get out more instead of staying huddled inside and sitting on the couch.

If you want to add more activity to your days, that’s great, as long as you’re thinking about the reality of what you’ll get. Try to stay away from ideas about making drastic changes to your body and focus instead on how it improves your mood, energizes you, and reduces stress.

By doing that, you’ll be more likely to stick with the activity and enjoy the many benefits it does provide.

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