Sometimes, Tara Mackay works up to 80 hours a week, and hitting the gym at the end of a long day is the last thing on her mind. A lawyer at a major law firm in downtown Toronto, “my legal career is very demanding and challenging,” says Mackay, 36. “The primary impediment [to exercise] is time.” Still, Mackay manages to squeeze in two workout sessions per week, at 6:30 a.m., with personal trainer Jacqueline Gradish. “If she wasn’t there waiting for me, I would probably hit the snooze button,” she says.
A lack of time is the number one reason people give for skipping the gym, “but is it the real reason? No,” says Kathleen Martin Ginis, an exercise psychology professor at McMaster University in Hamilton. The real problem, she notes, is a lack of motivation—one sparked by our own unrealistic expectations. “A lot of people start an exercise program because they want to change how they look,” Martin Ginis says, and quickly grow discouraged when the pounds don’t melt away. “Exercise has lots of health benefits,” says Dr. Arya Sharma, scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network. “But losing weight is not one of them.”
We live in what’s called an “obesogenic environment,” says Bob Ross, a professor at Queen’s University and obesity expert—one that predisposes us to be heavy. Instead of walking to work, we drive. Instead of climbing the stairs, we take the elevator. Instead of cooking meals at home, “we don’t even have to get out of the car, and we can consume 2,000 calories in a cheeseburger,” he says. Given the sedentary lifestyle that most Canadians lead—coupled with access to cheap, high-calorie food—it’s no wonder losing weight can be a massive struggle. Even putting in an hour at the gym “might burn an extra 300 calories a day,” Ross says, less than what’s in a Starbucks blueberry scone. With just that one change, “there’s no way you’re going to see a major reduction in body weight.”
Moreover, those who start working out just to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans probably won’t stick with it, a new study from the Heart and Stroke Foundation suggests. Three million Canadians aged 20 to 39 are inactive, it notes, and 2.5 million are overweight or obese. In a survey of 2,000 people, the HSF found that 62 per cent intentionally lost five pounds or more over the past five years, but then failed to keep it off. Of those who were overweight or obese to begin with, 70 per cent regained all the weight or even more.
Motivation likely has a lot to do with it: generally, people who quit exercising “often start for the wrong reasons, and never found a good reason to continue,” Martin Ginis notes. Indeed, among the group of young Canadians polled by the HSF, “half are interested in losing weight, but it’s clearly driven by aesthetics as opposed to good health,” says Dr. Marco Di Buono, director of research for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario. As a result, they choose “quick-fix solutions” like crash diets or unsustainable workouts, which can “lead to weight loss over a short period, but without continued practice, you regain all the more,” he says.
And it isn’t cheap. Of overweight people aged 20 to 39, half report spending money to lose weight (paying for gym fees or dietary supplements, for example). “On average, every attempt to lose weight by a Canadian adult costs $500,” whether it’s a one-time investment or a multi-week program, Di Buono says. “It’s pretty hefty.”
Those who are serious about getting fit will have to look beyond the mirror for motivation, at least at first.
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