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Never mind the scales – look at the measuring tape

Planning to jog off any extra pounds gained over the festive season? Well, think again. As if we haven't had enough bad news, research has now revealed that the link between exercise and weight loss is not what we have come to expect.

Indeed, if pounding the treadmill makes you feel more inclined to indulge in treats, exercise could even be making you fat!

As gyms across the country brace themselves for an influx of folk with New Year weight-loss resolutions, researchers in Britain and the US have been finding out, like many a discouraged gym member, that working out does not necessarily shed the pounds.

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine is the latest to report disappointing slimming results. In it, 58 obese people completed 12 weeks of supervised aerobic training without changing their diets. They didn't lose nearly as much weight from exercising as the research team had expected: on average, the group lost little more than seven pounds and 26 of the participants lost barely half that.

A study by the University of Colorado School of Medicine found their subjects did not use up any additional body fat on the day they exercised. Unexpectedly, none of those taking part, including the lean athletes, experienced ‘afterburn', that is where the body continues to burn fat after exercise has stopped.

The lead author of that study, Edward Melanson, had an explanation. “It’s not that exercise doesn't burn fat — it's just that we replace the calories,” he said.

It is a problem that Alan Campbell, duty manager at the Trinity College sports centre, is all too familiar with.

“A good workout will burn about 350 calories but the benefits of that could be wiped out by having a slice of chocolate cake with your tea. A workout is not a licence to indulge yourself.”

So, if the ‘exercise equals weight loss’ equation is not adding up, should we just give it up? Absolutely not, say the experts, who point out the benefits of exercise extend far beyond the weighing scales. Regular exercise, which could be just a brisk 30-minute walk several times a week, will strengthen your heart, lower bad cholesterol and help prevent serious illness. Not only that, the feel good chemicals produced in a workout will improve your mental health by helping to combat stress and depression.

But Alan, who has been a gym instructor for eight years, has some words of encouragement for us ordinary mortals. “You could spend two to three months doing an hour’s training two or three times a week and still weigh the same, or even a few pounds heavier. But you will lose inches from your body.

You will look better, feel better and your clothes will fit you better. Your body mass will decrease as fat turns to muscle. Never mind the weighing scales, look at the measuring tape.”

Gym instructor Stephen Pepper, manager of Jackie Skelly's in Greystones, had a heart warming tale of measuring tape success. He recently helped a tubby teenager transform himself in just two months.

“This chap was very overweight and self-conscious. It had got to the stage that he was too embarrassed to walk to school and his mother was worried about him.”

Stephen organised focused training sessions of cardio workouts and light weights, three nights a week, for 45 to 60 minutes. “Weight-wise, the lad lost a stone but more importantly he lost more than 30 inches from his body.”

The trimmed-down teen is now much more confident. “He feels able to take part in school sports and other activities, which he wouldn't do before. Having lost the bulk he is now determined to stay in shape,” says Stephen.

The good news about having muscle is that it burns three times as many calories as fat, but like the exerciseweight link, the muscle-fat relationship is also often misunderstood.

According to calculations by a Columbia University team in 2001, a pound of muscle burns around six calories a day in a resting body, while a pound of fat burns two calories.

This means that if you worked out hard enough to convert, say, 10lbs of fat to muscle — a significant achievement — you would be able to eat only an extra 40 calories per day. For the average sweet lover, that's the equivalent of two large wine gums.

Unless we make a considerable effort, humans are designed as a species to hang on to any extra calories we consume.