Is your gym membership making you fatter?

26 Jan / James Eastham

We’ve all been there: The 1st January comes around and the ‘new year new me’ crowd is out in force.

I want to be fitter.

I want to be healthier.

I’m going to join a gym.

Most people I know who are regular gym users despise January. The huge influx of people that hang around for a month or two never to be seen again. Today I want to propose something. Something some people might not like. But a thought I had recently, thinking about the general attitude towards the gym. Is your gym membership making you fatter?

Hold up… How can working out make me fatter?

Yep, exactly the response I expected. Before I delve into a little bit of science, I have a case study. A good friend of mine used to go to a running group. A kind of ‘couch to 5k’ type arrangement. I’m a huge advocate for this kind of activity. The sense of community spurs people on to keep going and it’s fantastic for the health of the general population.

However, there is a dark side to this community spirit. A small subset of the people working through the program would, after each session, go to the pub. Now, I love the pub! I love the social aspect, the friendliness and most of all … the beer. But, after spending an evening training for a 5k, hitting the pub straight after seems completely counter-intuitive to me.

Science time!

Don’t worry, there isn’t anything mind-boggling coming. Let’s assume the calorie burn from a 30-minute run is something like this:

The calories you burn during a 30-minute jog at a 5 mph pace depends on your weight — the more you weigh, the more calories you burn per minute. According to Harvard Medical School, a 155-pound individual burns roughly 298 calories, while a 185-pound person burns about 355 calories.
Taken from

Ok, so you’re going to burn between 300 and 400 calories. Now, keeping with the case study of our pub group. The average pint of beer contains 180 calories, a glass of wine contains 144 and a gin and tonic contain 115 (assuming slimline tonic). So our group of runners, providing they have just one drink, instantly put back on half of the calories they have just burnt. Have a couple of drinks, well you could have not gone to the pub or the run and ended up in the same place.

Back to the gym memberships

Most gym’s I’ve visited are guaranteed to have multiple things available:

  • Workout machines – CHECK
  • Free weights – CHECK
  • A reception desk – CHECK
  • A selection of ‘healthy’ treats for your post-workout snack – CHECK

The first 3, pretty innocent. The ‘healthy’ snacks, not so much. It’s interesting just sitting and watching in a gym cafe, seeing how many people leave the gym and consume some form of snack. Be it a protein bar, a post-workout refuel or maybe a sneaky blueberry muffin.

In some instances, this is absolutely fine. If you’re the skinny chap who really wants to build some muscle and put some weight on, let yourself go and devour that protein bar. If you’re the person who’s new years resolution is to trim down, you’re being sucked into a huge marketing fad.

Sticking with the blueberry muffin as the worst case example; the average blueberry muffin contains 470 calories. The average 30-minute workout? A measly 240-355 calories (my fitness pal)! You can do the maths I’m sure.

What gives you the authority to talk about this James?

Great question, I’m making some pretty big claims here with no grounds at all. Well, one picture will hopefully solve that.

Before and after weight loss photo

I bet you can’t guess which photo was taken when I was working out 6 times a week?

Yep, you guessed right. The one on the left…

Of the two, who would you say looks the healthiest human being?

At the time of the ‘before’ photo, I was hitting the gym 6 times per week, thinking that would help propel me towards my goals. What I didn’t realize, was that the huge numbers of calories I was consuming had probably the opposite effect of what I wanted.

I was eating 6 meals every day as per the common advice. My diet was basically eggs, chicken and rice. At the time I thought I was doing everything right and didn’t quite realise how big I was becoming. I was getting stronger, undoubtedly. But my goal had been to grow lean muscle, not to just grow muscle surrounded by a layer of fat.

Looking back now, especially comparing a side to side photo like that, gives me the shivers. If there’s one photo that keeps me eating healthy, this is it!

Gym membership Pin image 2

What are the solutions?

The solution is easy? Ensure your goals are clear in your mind. Ensure you know exactly what you want to get out of your gym membership. If your goal is to grow muscle or get fitter the gym is undoubtedly the place to start. If you want to get healthier/thinner then I propose an alternative solution.

Target all your energy at your diet and NOT at your fitness regime. I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old saying ‘abs are built in the kitchen’. Speaking from experience this is 100% true.

Focus your gains in the kitchen and you’ll soon realize your goals, I can’t stress that enough.

Actionable tip 1 – Focus your mind, what is your actual goal?

There is a second benefit of focusing your attention on the kitchen instead of the gym. That is the financial wins. A diet filled with vegetables, salads, and grains is both healthy and cheap. You’re also saving an average of say £40 per month in membership fees. That feels like a no brainer to me.

Where to start?

New years resolutions are in no way a bad thing, setting yourself measurable goals for the year is important for personal growth. The key is to keep them clear, actionable and most of all: specific. Once you have that goal in mind, work it backward. Work backward from you being the person who has achieved that goal. Let me give you an example by way of a conversation between me and a theoretical client:

So what’s your goal?

I want to lose 10kg and keep my weight below 75kg

Ok Deborah, so tell me what you think a person at that weights life is like?

Well, they probably work out and also eat really well. A lot of kale, an awful lot of kale. I’ve heard that’s good for you

Ok, good. So of the two things you’ve described, kale aside, which do you think you can action right now and with little difficulty?

Well, I’ve tried the gym before and I can never motivate myself to go. So I guess that leaves my diet…

Ok, so what small improvement could you make right now to start on the path to improving that?

Well, my husband and I eat out 2 or 3 times a week. Maybe we could scale that back to once a week? I also eat a lot of sugary snacks at work, if I take healthy snacks with me I can eat them instead when I get hungry.

Using the really simple technique of working backward from end result to now we’ve established the easy wins. Before we know it Deborah is well on her way to a healthier, better life.

Actionable tip 2 – Start with you being the person who is healthy, what does their life look like?

Closing up

I realize the headline of the article is a little click bait-y, I’m not sorry. Hopefully, the above wall of text has just got you thinking a little more about reaching your goals. The same tips can work with all aspects of life, not just getting healthy. Have an actionable goal and work backward from there.

Gym making you fatter Pinterest image

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