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Sunday
Apr102016

How to Prevent Exercise from Ruining Your Results

Are there ways exercise can hinder your ability to lose weight?  Join Paul as he cracks down on ways exercise may work against weight loss along with the right way to set up an effective (and balanced) exercise program to help shed fat. 

Imagine this: you and your identical twin are part of a study looking into the effects of an exercise program designed to put you in a 1000 Calorie per day deficit through two 1-hour exercise sessions per day for over 90 days (with one rest day every 9 days). All of your food and non-exercise activity is tightly regulated because you’re being housed in a research ward. At the end of the study period, you’ve lost a whopping 4 pounds and your identical twin has lost half that amount.

Would you be happy with these results? What could have hindered your progress? Two workouts per day seems like more than enough to induce significant weight loss, right?

This was an actual scenario observed in a small-but-well-controlled study meant to investigate the response to exercise in subjects sharing the same DNA (identical twins)[i]. Some of the other subjects in the study lost more weight, but why – if there were such high amounts of energy burned through exercise – did these subjects not get absolutely ripped? And why would identical twins, with identical DNA, following identical programs see different results than one another?

Today we are bombarded with infomercials and magazine articles that lead us to think calorie-torching programs promising over 1000 Calories burned per workout are the answer to our weight loss woes. They look fun, effective, efficient and rewarding. The testimonials are convincing. Why aren’t we seeing a decline in the rates of overweight/obesity?

Is it possible that exercise could be ruining more results than it creates?

Exercise is a wellness tool, not a ticket to weight loss[ii].

There are conflicting opinions and unclear research[iii] about the role of exercise in weight loss. But what many experts agree on is that exercise does not uniformly nor predictably cause weight loss (but exercise may influence weight management efforts).

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of benefits to consistent exercise. But understand that for exercise to be effective, it has to be more than just a way to burn calories. And it needs to be done in the right context for you.

Start with the ‘minimal effective dose,’ then progress.

It appears that the major benefits of exercise on weight loss efforts happen when sedentary subjects become moderately active. But as physical activity increases over time, it has less and less impact on total energy expenditure[iv]. Call it beginner’s luck, but just know that if you’re at the beginning of your journey, you’re better off starting with short workouts and saving yourself from the discomfort often experienced when going from zero to 60-minutes per day.

Give your body time to adapt to increasing levels of physical demands; this is called progression and periodization. Rush the process and you may encounter injury, burnout, or boredom, all of which can derail your overall results.

Beware of compensation.

As you follow an exercise program, whether you cut calories from your diet or not, there are changes to your Resting Metabolic Rate. One meta-analysis suggests about a 7% decrease in metabolic rate[v]. In other words, as we become more fit, we may burn fewer calories at rest! This effect seemed more pronounced in lean people than obese, which suggests the body may have protective means that prevent us from getting too lean?

Aside from metabolic compensation for exercise, there are a few other anomalies you should be wary of as you proceed through your exercise journey: appetite changes, cravings and non-exercise activity reductions. Studies on these changes are somewhat inconsistent, but you need to be aware of the possibilities.

Remember the phrase “working up an appetite”? Well, immediately after exercise, you may have a blunted appetite, but as exercise volume and intensity increase, you may notice your appetite elevate along the way. One study showed that previously sedentary subjects who trained for a half marathon compensated for their exercise (calories out) with increases in their energy intake (calories in) – particularly the women studied[vi].

Anecdotally, I’ve observed many people who exercise at high intensity or for long durations who experience changes in food preferences – they get wicked cravings. Since hard exercise or long, depleting training sessions can empty glycogen reserves (stored glucose) and deplete electrolytes, their training efforts often lead to strong cravings for starchy, salty, and/or sugary foods. If you have difficulty resisting these things, just know that exercising yourself into a deep calorie deficit can make it all but impossible to stay away from these types of foods.

Other areas of compensation research are trying to explain the phenomenon that people who exercise often decrease other types of activity somewhere else in their day. They may sit more, take the elevator instead of the stairs, slouch, or otherwise reduce activity. Whether or not this totally unravels the energy they expended in their workout remains a question, but it needs to be considered nonetheless.

Use exercise as a stimulus for change, not just to force an energy deficit.

It’s said that athletes train hard and eat to recover. Why does the weight loss industry tell you to burn lots of calories and diet?

If you lift and lower heavy stuff, your body gets a signal to build more muscle and strength. If you run fast then rest, your body gets a stimulus to improve its power and cardiovascular capacity. If you slog along on the treadmill until it says you’ve burned 1000 Calories, you just got better at slogging along (and probably got a bit hungry too).

Athletes (many of whom are extremely lean) use exercise as a potent trigger to stimulate muscle growth, increase strength and power and improve balance and coordination. They expend enormous amounts of effort, then they rest. The best athletes get serious amounts of rest, sneaking in cat-naps, sleeping for 8+ hours per night, getting massages, etc. They undulate their training intensity and volume according to the subtle signals their body sends them throughout their training journey.

Athletes adapt and improve their fitness and body composition through this mastery of stress and recovery.

Dieters exercise to burn calories, then they restrict calories in hopes they master their calorie math problem. They do this whether they’re tired, overworked, under-slept or otherwise over-stressed. They do this without knowing their metabolism is in disrepair from previous workouts, undernourishment and other stressors piled up around them.

If you don’t want to be disappointed by meager results, get to know the health of your metabolism, interpret to the clues your body sends you after each tough training session and know that you can’t always go pedal-to-the-medal and expect your body to hold up.

Once your metabolic health is well-established, then – and only then – your results can be amazing.

Don’t forget the fun.

Nothing ruins your results faster than a bad attitude. Seriously, use your physical activity as an outlet for all the other stress you deal with. Make it a fun, social part of your day that leaves you feeling more energized (rather than worn down & hangry).

Make a commitment to put exercise on your “get-to-do” list instead of your “to-do” list and watch what happens. I bet your happiness quotient reaches new heights.

Whether you join a group exercise class or appreciate a solo workout while surrounded by other people working on their fitness, working out does plenty of good for your intellect and mood, but often goes unnoticed.


[i] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.1550-8528.1994.tb00087.x/epdf

[ii] http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2009/09/29/bjsm.2009.065557.abstract

[iii] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21832897?dopt=Abstract

[iv] http://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(15)01577-8.pdf

[v] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3771367/pdf/nihms506383.pdf

[vi] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1390606

In health, Paul Kriegler, Registered Dietitian and Life Time - Nutrition Program Development Manager.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader. 

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