From personal trainers who should know better, to food companies who don’t care what consequences their products have on the health of their consumers, we’ve been told time and time again that if we exercise more, then fat loss is a given.
Well, I’m sorry to break it to you folks, but exercise has very little to do with how much fat you burn!
This doesn’t mean to say you should stop exercising. Coupled with a great diet, you’ll experience better fat loss results than dietary changes alone (although not huge amounts). And the physiological benefits are extraordinary, such as reduced:
- Blood pressure and blood triglyceride levels
- Risk of Type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease (including heart attacks)
- Cognitive impairment such as dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease
Exercise also plays many other amazing roles for your health and wellbeing:
- Weight management (in conjunction with a healthy diet)
- Improves cognitive abilities (i.e. you’ll be smarter!)
- Increases energy levels
- Improves quality of sleep
- Increases strength and flexibility
- Boosts confidence
- Improves the immune system to fight disease
In other words, if you exercise regularly, you’re much more likely to live longer, and the quality of life will be vastly improved.
But this article isn’t about the magical powers of exercise. It’s about the relationship between exercise and fat loss, and the results from multiple research studies doesn’t make for kind reading.
Exercise alone is virtually a waste of time if fat loss is your only goal
Before I get stuck into why this is true, there are always exceptions to every rule. You may know someone who has lost a heap of weight from nothing more than exercise alone. Two things I’ve got to say about that. Firstly, I’m guessing (despite what they might say) there was a dietary change as well. Secondly, there are genetically gifted individuals who can drop weight really easily through nothing more than exercise. Most of us can’t.
There’s a common ‘rule of thumb’ that has been doing the rounds of health and fitness since the 1950’s, and is still used by high profile organisations and individuals today. It goes something like this – a pound of fat has approximately 3,500 calories, so if we cut 500 calories from our normal day (either from food or through exercise), we’ll lose a pound of fat per week (2.2 pounds = one kilogram).
Of course, there are more holes in this ‘3,500 calorie’ theory than Swiss cheese. But let’s have a look at a couple.
- When you lose weight, it’s not 100% fat loss. You will lose some fat (that’s good), but you’re also likely to lose muscle and water as well (that’s not good).
- Because there is now less muscle tissue in the body, less energy is required from food (muscle is metabolically active). So if you eat the same amount of food, whatever that might be, you’re not going to need as much of it for muscular activity. That means less fat loss.
- We use energy to eat and digest food. If we’re eating less, we’re not using as much energy.
- When the body realises there is less energy coming in from food, or we’re increasing energy expenditure but not eating more, it adapts. It starts to conserve energy, just in case we’re heading for an energy shortage (i.e. famine). Without even realising it you move, fidget and tap your feet less, and reduce all of those other small movements we make without even realising we’re doing it. All in the name of energy conservation.
While you may experience fat loss, it won’t be as much as you’d hoped with a 500 calorie per day deficit if you believe in the ‘3,500 Calories’ theory.
We don’t burn much energy from exercise anyway!
If you were to go as hard as you could in a spin class for an hour, you might burn around 700 calories…maybe. If you then decide you deserve a treat because you’ve worked so hard, and head to McDonald’s for a large Quarter Pounder Meal with Coke and fries, that’s 1,225 calories. That’s over 500 more calories more from the food you eat in about 10 minutes, than the total calories lost during the hour-long slog you’ve just endured in the spin class.
Rewarding yourself with junk food doesn’t make sense, does it! The message from McDonald’s and other food companies has always been that our sedentary lives are to blame for rising obesity levels, and not the food we eat. Obviously, that’s total bullshit!
Here’s the thing about our daily energy expenditure. Only a small percentage of it actually comes from our movement. No matter how much you move and exercise on any given day (professional athletes aside), it will only account for around 10-30% of your total daily energy expenditure. Around 60-80% of our energy is used for keeping us alive and functioning (our basal metabolic rate), and around 10% is used to digest the food we eat.
To put this into perspective, we get 100% of the energy we need from the food we eat, but at most only use 30% of it performing any sort of physical activity. So for fat loss, what has the greater impact on our waistline, the food we eat or the exercise we do?
OK, give me an example to show me what you mean
Given the ‘3,500 Calorie’ theory is about as useful as an ab belt electrocuting you to a six-pack, we’re going to use the much more reliable Body Weight Planner on the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease website. It was designed by Kevin Hall, an obesity researcher and mathematician, and takes into account numerous factors for fat loss.
Below is the projected fat loss for a male, 43 years-of-age, 110kg, and 180cm. Let’s call him Ben. His job involves light activities (he works in sales) and he currently rides his bike once a week for exercise.
Ben wants to lose 20kg (goal weight 90kg) in 180 days, so has decided to add 4 x 30-minute medium intensity bike rides per week into his schedule, in addition to what he already does.
To achieve his goal, Ben would also have to drop his calorie intake from an estimated 3,429 Calories/day maintenance level, to 2,333 Calories/day. That’s a big drop!
If we removed the 4 x 30-minute medium intensity bike rides per week, and relied solely on reducing calories to achieve his goal, Ben would have to reduce his Calorie intake to 2,157/day.
So in effect, the 4 x 30-minute medium intensity bike rides per week only allows Ben to eat an extra 176 Calories/day. That’s a little more than half (60g) of a rasher of bacon. And I don’t know about you, but whenever I exercise I tend to eat and rest more than I would normally. A double whammy if you’re trying to lose fat from exercise.
The bottom line is this. The two extra hours a week on the bike provided virtually no extra assistance in losing fat for Ben, and could be problematic given we eat more and move less after exercise.
The evidence is clear, both from this example and numerous studies on the topic. if you’ve got a lot of weight to lose, and you’re trying to achieve your goals from exercise alone, you’re in for a long, long, long wait.
If exercise doesn’t work to lose fat, what does?
Getting your food intake right is the key to your success. A few subtle changes can make an enormous difference. Losing weight isn’t just about changing what you eat, but how you eat as well. Here are five simple yet effective ways to change your eating behaviour and lose weight.
1. Eat slower
Sounds ridiculous, right? What the hell does ‘eat slower’ do? I’m glad you asked.
It takes around 20-minutes for the signals from your stomach that let you know you’re full to travel to your brain. But in today’s world we tend to speed eat, and often finish well within that 20-minute period. We don’t give ourselves time to say, “have I had enough food”. Chances are, the reason why you’re putting on weight is that you’re eating too fast. I’m confident that if you slow down you’ll feel fuller on less food. Less food means fewer calories, and that could mean fat loss.
So put down the knife and fork between bites. Have a glass of water with your meal. Talk to your family, friends and work colleagues throughout your meal. Do whatever it takes, just add 10-15 minutes to your meal time and see what happens. You’ll be very surprised.
2. Eat until you’re satisfied, not stuffed
Now that you’re eating slowly, practice eating until you’re only around 80% full. The number doesn’t really matter, but go by gut feel (pun intended) instead of just hoovering everything up off the plate.
As you eat, be mindful of how you actually feel. Take a bite of your food, swallow it, then check in with yourself – “how do I feel?” and “am I full?”. If you’re genuinely still hungry, take another bite. If you’re not hungry, stop eating.
In the beginning, you’re not going to get your portion sizes right. You may find you’re leaving food on the plate. But in no time at all, you’ll be serving up smaller portions and feeling much better at the end of your meal. No more bloated bellies!!!
Just like ‘eat slower’, less food means fewer calories, and that could mean fat loss.
3. Eat a lean protein source at every meal
Protein is so important for a thousand reasons, and yet we don’t get enough in our diet. We often start the day with a carb-heavy toast and/or cereal breakfast, then have a sandwich/roll/wrap for lunch that may or may not have protein in it. For many, it’s not until we have meat for dinner that we finally get a good serving of protein in our day.
Instead, enjoy meat, eggs, fish, tofu, lentils and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here’s why:
Protein takes far more energy to metabolise and digest than carbohydrates and fats.
Protein takes a long time to digest, so you’ll feel fuller for longer. Toast and cereal for breakfast often means a mid-morning snack to get you through to lunch. Eggs and beans will get you through to lunch, no problem.
It’s easier to have a balanced meal with protein. For example, you’re unlikely to have chicken breast with Coco Pops for breakfast. You’re more likely to have chicken with other nutritious foods like veggies and rice.
4. Find someone to keep you accountable
If you’ve got someone willing to help you through the journey, your chances of success skyrocket. There is nothing more motivating than the thought of weekly check-ins to discuss your plan of attack, actions taken and results achieved with someone you respect.
But the person you choose is important. Don’t just choose someone who is going to agree with everything you say, and really isn’t on board with what you’re trying to do. You need to choose someone who knows when to offer encouragement, and when to give you a kick up the bum.
5. Assess your progress regularly
Jump on the scales once a week and keep records. Use a tape measure and take body girth measurements around your shoulders, chest, belly, hips, upper arm and upper leg every two weeks. Take front, back and side photos once a month. Check in with yourself occasionally and ask, “do I have more energy”, “am I sleeping better”, “how are my clothes feeling”, and other subjective questions.
If you’re not measuring and keeping records, it’s going to be very difficult to make decisions about whether you need to make changes to your plan or not.
Let’s wrap this up…
At the end of the day, studies suggest fat loss is achieved faster when dietary changes are combined with an increase in your exercise levels (assuming you don’t do much to begin with). But just remember, the exercise component won’t have much of a say on your fat loss, but it will play a key role in your health and wellbeing.
So if fat loss is your number one goal, and exercise is THE plan, rethink it. The evidence is clear, dietary changes will have the biggest impact on your fat loss results.
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