Are you an avid or competitive exerciser? Are you also trying to lose weight but struggling to reach your goal?
Fact: When previously sedentary individuals add exercise, they become more fit, decrease risk for chronic diseases and better manage body weight.
Fact: Not only is there a large variability in exercise-induced weight loss, but people generally lose less weight than expected.
Fact: People who lose little/no weight after adding exercise compensate for increased output by reducing non-exercise activity and/or increasing intake.
Fact: Some people experience an appetite-stimulated response to exercise, making them more resistant to weight loss.
Previously, few people believed exercise helped with weight loss. Until the 1960s, clinicians who treated overweight patients dismissed the notion as naïve. Russell Wilder, obesity and diabetes specialist at the Mayo Clinic, said fat patients tended to lose more weight with bed rest, “while unusually strenuous physical exercise slows the rate of loss.”
The problem, as he and his contemporaries saw it, is light exercise burns an insignificant number of calories, which are compensated for through changes in diet. In 1942, Louis Newburgh of the University of Michigan calculated that a 250-pound man expends three calories climbing a flight of stairs—the equivalent of a quarter-teaspoon of sugar or a hundredth of an ounce of butter. “He will have to climb twenty flights of stairs to rid himself of the energy contained in one slice of bread!” Newburgh observed.
More strenuous exercise, these physicians argued, doesn’t help—because it works up an appetite. “Vigorous muscle exercise usually results in immediate demand for a large meal,” noted Hugo Rony of Northwestern University in Obesity and Leanness. “Consistently high or low energy expenditures result in consistently high or low levels of appetite. […] Statistics show that the average daily caloric intake of lumberjacks is more than 5,000 calories, while that of tailors is only about 2,500 calories. Persons who change their occupation from light to heavy work or vice versa soon develop corresponding changes in their appetite.” If a tailor becomes a lumberjack and takes to eating like one, why assume the same won’t happen to an overweight tailor who works out like a lumberjack?
Some research says intense exercise increases hunger and/or compensatory behaviors. Some say it reduces it. Likewise with lower intensity exercise. There is no universal agreement on what type of exercise is ideal.
“The one thing that might be said about exercise with certainty is that it tends to make us hungry. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. Burn more calories and the odds are very good that we’ll consume more as well.” – New York magazine
Your Body’s Set Point
Many exercisers aren’t conscious about the body’s drive to maintain homeostasis. The body could care less about your weight-loss goal. It wants to stay at a set point. It wants to replenish energy as though you were a hungry lumberjack splitting wood all day. You have to remain vigilant to counter the tendency to compensate for extra output with extra input.
Serving Two Masters
You’re serving two masters if you want to lose weight AND improve performance. Yet many well-intentioned dieters act as though their life depends on maintaining performance at all costs.
If you’re struggling with weight loss, and your livelihood doesn’t depend on how much you can bench press, you need to pick a goal: fat loss or physical performance. Performance rarely improves when calories are cut. However, after you’ve lost the pounds, performance will rebound beyond anything you were doing before. You have to direct MORE energy toward the MOST important goal.
If you exercise regularly, have a sound caloric goal for weight loss, and aren’t losing weight, you ARE compensating with food. Your body keeps a perfect record of what you eat.
There are three primary forms of exercise compensation that negatively impact weight loss:
- Rewarding with food for virtuous behavior
- Replacing energy burned with intake to maintain performance
- Less movement during rest of day
What if you’re strength training and adding muscle? Doesn’t that burn hundreds of calories? A pound of muscle burns six calories a day in a resting body, while a pound of fat burns two calories. The average woman MIGHT add a half pound of muscle per month if she’s properly training. The average man MIGHT add one pound of muscle per month under the same ideal conditions. In a perfect scenario, the average woman MIGHT realize a three-calorie benefit per day for every month she adds that half-pound of muscle. And the average man MIGHT realize a six-calorie benefit.
However, exercise is NOT useless. Beyond burning calories, it enhances heart health, helps prevent disease and improves mental health and cognition.
Exercise can be the difference between losing one pound and five pounds a week. An average woman cutting calories and exercising vigorously will burn 5-8 calories per minute. The average man will burn 7-10 calories. Eventually, it’s imprudent to cut calories further, so increasing output becomes important. Exercise is the output.
Participants on “The Biggest Loser” exercise 6-8 hours per day. When their nutrition is dialed in, they lose 3-10 pounds per week. When they slack on nutrition, they occasionally gain weight, despite the exercise.
In conclusion, it’s easy to erase the value of exercise with licks, bites, tastes and sips. Make a food plan, log your food and follow your plan carefully. Your body wants to maintain status quo by increasing intake to replace energy burned. You may have to sacrifice performance in the short term. Don’t sit or lie down too much. Move, groove, walk. Stay active and stay focused on your most-important goal.