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It’s extremely difficult for people to lose weight once they’ve gained it by simply exercising more.
It’s a concept I’ve been trying to disprove for years and it’s a message we’re continually force-fed in the media; If you workout hard, you can keep indulging — and still lose weight.
It’s been reinforced by fitness celebrities, food companies, and even large corporations. There’s just one problem: This message is not only wrong, but also leading us astray in our fight against obesity.
There is an exact science to weight loss.
When protein and calories are carefully controlled in studies, either low fat or low carb diets produce similar amounts of weight loss.
But how does exercise impact weight loss?
Exercise is Excellent for Health
Before we dive into why exercise is NOT the most important thing you need to do for weight loss, let’s make one thing clear: No matter how working out impacts your waistline, it does wonders for your body, mind, and soul.
It’ll make you happier, increase your energy levels, and help with relaxation and sleep. Exercise offers incredible benefits that can improve nearly every aspect of your health from the inside out.It's extremely difficult for people to lose weight once they've gained it by simply exercising more.Click To Tweet
If you do nothing else but exercise, even without changing your diet, you will see a range of health benefits, including reducing blood pressure, the risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia, and even heart attack.
It’s like a wonder drug for many, many health outcomes. I’m a big fan; fitness forms part of my identity, I can’t live without it.
However, when it comes to weight loss, I’ve come to realize, I’ve got it wrong. I now realize exercise alone is a terrible idea for weight loss and I think we, as a collective industry have got it wrong.
Why Exercise is Terrible for Weight Loss
The benefits of exercise are real. The stories about people who have lost a tremendous amount of weight by hitting the gym are plentiful. But the bulk of the evidence tells a less than impressive story.
Highly controlled studies have shown, that when diets and lifestyle habits are kept constant, the effects of exercise alone on weight loss are modest at best. Exercise energy expenditure does not correlate with weight loss.
Just from your own experience, or what you’ve seen with others, how many times have you seen yourself increase your weekly exercise habits, to only see the scales move more in the opposite direction?
Think about all the people who train for marathons each year and do not lose a single pound of weight?Exercise is Terrible for Weight LossClick To Tweet
The truth is, the research around physical activity alone has a very modest effect on weight loss — a depressingly modest amount.
People are led to believe that if you burn more calories than you consume, that will automatically work for weight loss. The problem is this rule is overly simplistic.
The human body is far more complex.
Yes, it comes down to the science of calories in, calories out, but the energy equation is a dynamic and adaptable system.
When you alter one component — cutting the number of calories you eat in a day to lose weight, doing more exercise than usual — this sets off a cascade of changes in the body that affect how many calories you use up and, in turn, your bodyweight.
Exercise Accounts for a Small Portion of Daily Calorie Burn
One very underappreciated fact about exercise is that even when you work out, those extra calories burned only account for a tiny part of your total energy expenditure.
Including NEAT, it’s only around 10 to 30 percent of total energy expenditure depending on the average individual.
There are four main components to energy expenditure:
- Basal metabolic rate, or the energy used for basic functioning when the body is at rest
- The energy used to break down food
- NEAT, Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis
- 4) Exercise
Exercise isn’t nothing, but it’s not nearly equal to food intake — which accounts for 100 percent of the energy intake of the body.
It’s hard to create a significant calorie deficit through exercise alone, that’s why it’s impossible to out-train a bad diet.
Trust me on this, I’ve tried for years to try and disprove it, and I’ve failed every single time.
Exercise Undermines Weight Loss in Other Ways
Exercise has a way of making us hungry — so hungry that we might consume more calories than we burned off. Studies and experience show that people seem to increase their food intake after exercise — either because they thought they burned off a lot of calories or because they were hungrier.
People generally overestimate how much energy exercise burned and eat more after they worked out.
Think about all those calories your Fitbit says you’ve burned which allows you to justify to yourself that huge slice of cake you want afterward.
You work hard for an hour, and that work will be erased with five minutes of eating afterward. That slice of cake, for example, could completely undo the calories you just burned in an hour. As could a cafe mocha or a slice of Pizza
There’s also evidence to suggest that some people simply slow down after a workout, using less energy on their non-gym activities. They might decide to lie down for a rest, move less because they’re tired, or take the elevator instead of the stairs.
These compensatory behaviors refer to adjustments we may unconsciously make after working out to offset the calories burned.
This is why I think HITT is a terrible idea for most people over thirty. They’re so tired at the end of it, they reach out for more food during the day and move less!
Remember, NEAT is just as important as the exercise part. In fact I think, combined with food choices, is more important.Exercise Can Undermine Weight Loss in Other WaysClick To Tweet
What Works for Weight Loss?
The point I’m trying to get to is this. I think working out and training is the last part of the weight loss puzzle, not the first. It will only account for the 3-5 hours per week. What about the other 160+ hours? The 160+ hours that people forget about.
We put so much thought and effort into what the workouts should be, or even the clothes we’re going to wear and the gym we’re going to go to, that we forget the basics of weight loss.
Exercise is just the icing on the cake, no pun intended, when it comes to a complete weight loss plan.
Researchers have shown time and time again that people who have had success losing weight have a few things in common:
- They weigh themselves at least once a week.
- They restrict their calorie intake
- They also exercise regularly.
They don’t exercise to lose weight alone, they use physical activity in addition to calorie control and other behavioral changes.
Every reliable expert I know says the most important thing a person can do is control the amount of food they eat in a way they like and can sustain, and focus on eating healthfully.
As a rule of thumb, exercise alone is the worst idea for losing weight. Great for your overall health and well-being. Terrible for weight loss.
It’s best used as a stand-alone tool for weight maintenance and overall well-being.
Now, you can lose weight on dieting alone; I’ve seen it happen time and time again. My Dad recently lost 60lbs on just controlled eating habits and walking 20 minutes a day.
However, if you want to lose weight faster, combining diet with exercise is a more optimal solution.
The problem is, we get so fixated on the workout part, that we forget about the other aspects of life that keep getting in the way; Stress, anxiety, depression, work, kids, sleep, etc. They can all mess with our best weight loss plans.
This is the hard part when you’re over 30, it’s dealing with this life stuff.
It’s not the workouts you should be focussing on, it’s all this other stuff and getting this under control, so that you get to workout.
Working out is a privilege. Not a chore.The reality is – despite all the hype and marketing and chaos – if we’re not losing weight, we’re eating too many calories to create a caloric deficit.
Don’t blame the workouts.
Something to think about this week.
Until next time,
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