Do you think it is vitally important to exercise to lose weight? Do you believe that by increasing the amount of exercise you do you can hack into those long-standing fat stores? Of course, exercise has a multitude of benefits. Regular exercise balances and even boosts our mood and reduces stress. It can help us to keep our circadian rhythm in check and experience a deeper, better quality of sleep as long as you’re not exercising just before bedtime. Exercise gets the blood pumping and helps to move the nutrients in our blood around the body to our organs. Exercise can help us to retain or build more lean muscle and strengthen our bones BUT does exercise actually cause weight loss or is there a limit to what it can actually do?
Studies have shown that despite the ever increasing growth in the data for those exercising, obesity still continues to rise. For example, in countries like the US where people exercise more than in the Netherlands, obesity levels are still triple that of the Dutch. What came out of a summary of a number of these types of studies is: whether physical activity increases or decreases, it has virtually no relationship to the prevalence of obesity.
So how does it work?
To be in optimal health our bodies will always try and stay in balance. When something is out of balance the body will do what it can to correct the balance (if it can) – this is known as homeostasis. This is how it works with exercise and metabolism. When we exercise more, we eat more to compensate, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to weight loss if you’re not focusing on the right food for you.
The body’s total energy expenditure is comprised of a number of factors:
Basal metabolic rate (breathing, maintaining body temperature, organ function etc) + thermogenic effect of food (how much energy you burn when you eat a particular food, based on meal size, frequency and macronutrient composition – protein/fat/carb) + non-exercise activity thermogenesis (the exercise you do by just moving around each day + excess post oxygen consumption (the energy you burn after a workout – dependent on the type of workout) + exercise.
These factors are not constant and of course, can change. This shows that exercise alone is not enough to actually lose weight. Of course it can help up metabolic rate but if you are eating more of the wrong kinds of foods you won’t actually slim down, your body will adjust and maintain balance as much as it can and you’ll hit a fat or weight loss plateau.
More studies found that it is a natural inclination for those who did regular exercise each day, to move less outside of the times they did exercise. For those who made regular movement a part of their daily lives without regular exercise, they burned the same amount of energy as those that worked out every day.
The benefits of exercise have a natural upper limit. You cannot out-exercise or outrun a bad diet. Not only that, too much exercise creates an extra stressor on the body and can cause burn out. Use up all your nutrients through over-exercise and by eating nutrient-void food that doesn’t take much energy to digest and your metabolism will slow down and you won’t have the energy to exercise.
Of course having more lean muscle (from weight training for example) means you burn more fat at rest or when you do move (this ups your basal metabolic rate), but this is not weight loss. Muscle is heavier than fat so if you’re living by the scales this isn’t the most accurate indicator of body composition and health.
I’m not recommending you shouldn’t exercise, of course, we need the benefits of exercise as I mentioned above but I do not recommend basing health status religiously on your weight. Measurements/dress size and how you look and feel is a much better indicator. Diet is the most important factor as much as 95%!
Of course, there’s a place for exercise (the other 5%!) but if you really want to make progress, focus on your diet and what you are eating. If you’re really into your exercise and love to train that’s ok but I recommend making sure you see a qualified sports nutritionist to ensure you cover all your nutritional bases. Watching what you eat doesn’t mean being obsessive about how much you eat either. It’s the quality of food that matters and how your body metabolises it.