diets · weight loss

Why don’t plus sized athletes lose weight?

Last week I wrote about plus sized athletes: Plus sized endurance athletes, we exist!

And at the end of my post I said the reader might be wondering why these runners/swimmers/cyclists are so big. Why don’t they lose weight?

This question comes in two different flavours:

First, the curious: How could they be that big after all that swimming/biking/cycling? Shouldn’t all that activity have resulted in weight loss?

Second, the normative: Why haven’t they tried to lose weight? Surely you’d be a faster swimmer/runner/cyclist if you dropped a few kilos?

In response to the first version, it’s amazing how much you can move your body and not lose weight. Tracy blogged too about this too when she wrote about the connection between endurance training and getting lean. (Hint: basketball won’t make you tall either.)

I was alternately amused/outraged when a staff person in the academic department where I work suggest that in order to lose weight I should consider walking to work. You know, start with the little things, like getting off the bus one stop earlier. Apparently, according to her, it makes all the difference.  Except of course it doesn’t, even as far as fitness, not weight loss is concerned. See Taking the stairs will not get you in shape.

At the time I was training for a triathlon, swimming every morning, doing 100 km + bike rides on the weekends, running, and lifting weights. When the staff member found that out she was flabbergasted. I think she wondered, why keep doing it, going to all that effort, if it isn’t working? I was getting faster, fitter, feeling better but in her mind the only real measure of success was weight loss. That still strikes me as sad.

If you’re curious about the relationship between exercise and weight loss see Which is more important for weight loss? Diet or Exercise?

Dr. John Briffa, who runs an excellent health blog, analyzed a study examining weight loss without dietary intervention here. He explains:

In this study, 320 post-menopausal women whose weight ranged from normal to obese were randomised to either an additional exercise or no additional exercise group (the control group). Those in the exercise group were instructed to take 45 minutes worth of moderate-vigorous aerobic exercise, 5 times a week for a year. Both groups (the additional exercise and the control group) were instructed not to change their diets.

At the end of the year, it was found that the exercise group, compared to the control group, lost an average of 2 kg (4.4 lbs) of fat. I’d say that quite a lot of us would be glad to drop a couple of kgs of fat. But now I’d also like to focus on what these women had to do to achieve this loss.

While the exercise group were instructed to exercise 5 times a week for 45 minutes, what they actually did was exercise for an average of 3.6 days each week. Total exercise time averaged 178.5 mins per week. We can multiply this by 52 to get the total number of minutes exercise over the course of the year, and divide this by 60 to convert it into hours. Doing this, we get a total of just under 155 hours. That’s about 77 hours of exercise for each kg of fat lost.

Most people would balk at the idea of exercising for 77 hours to lose 1 kg of fat. (Or equivalently 35 hours to lose 1 pound, for us American folk.)

That’s in response to the first version of the question.

In response to the normative version, have a look at our posts on the near impossibility of long term weight loss. See Sam and Tracy Respond to the Near Impossibility of Weight Loss: Our Posts All In One Place. Given the success rate, it seems a perfectly reasonable response not to have weight loss as a goal. I’d like to be 5’10 too. But no one asks what I’m doing to make it happen.

Some people have complicated weight loss journeys. See here. Some of my weight loss saga is here.

Or the larger athletes might just be happy being larger. Not everyone wants to be thin as hard as it is to believe that.

I really enjoyed reading Ragen Chastain’s blog post on what would happen if she lost weight training for the IronMan competition. She highly doubts she will lose weight but….

So, with all of that said, what happens if I lose weight on the path to the IM? First of all, if I do experience weight loss then it would most likely be a short term loss in response to extraordinary circumstances and, like all weight loss, the chances of me maintaining it are miniscule.

It’s highly unlikely that if I lose weight at all I would lose enough weight to no longer be considered “fat” There are plenty of fat endurance athletes. What I think is more likely is that I will lose a couple of pounds and have to deal with annoying and unwanted “compliments” from people who assume I’ll be grateful that they are keeping tabs on my body size, or who assume that I will be happier with a body that is smaller.




6 thoughts on “Why don’t plus sized athletes lose weight?

  1. It is amazing how this idea of exercise and weight loss are so prevalent.

    My personal experience this year is that i exercised less vigourously – switching spin and bootcamp for yoga. Now, a lot of the yoga i do is hard, hot and vigourous, but a couple days i week i make sure i do yin. Still, static poses.

    I have not gained weight. Diet wise, i am eating more relaxed that ever.

    Weight is an odd thing. It is not simple or easy.


  2. Wow. I was having this weight discussion with a student today. I am new to this blogging thing but, this will be inspirational to anyone. Thanks

  3. Too many people associate exercise with weight loss. On my fitness blog, I talk about how being fit and the shape of your body are two entirely different things. There are plenty of high-level athletes who also have high body fat composition (strongmen/women, some fighters/wrestlers, etc.). Now, weight can sometimes have a detrimental effect on certain sports (you’d be hard pressed to find a competitive rock climber, high jumper, or sprinter who has high body fat percentage), but people overvalue the link between your body’s “shape” and your body’s “fitness.”

  4. Thank you for this. What a validating, comforting post. About 30 lbs lighter than I was 10 years ago but I miss the dedication I had to my yoga practice. I was stronger, then, and walked down the street tall and more grounded. Trying to return to that self — no matter what my weight.

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