Exercise: Ineffective for Weight Loss
I’ve been carving through Gary Taubes book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. It is thick, detailed and amazingly well researched. Dr. Eades and a number of other people have reviewed the book so I’ve been hesitant to reinvent the wheel but I think I might have something to add to the general discussion.
I just wrapped up the chapter that looks at the effects, or lack there of of exercise on weight loss and body composition. In a nutshell, as we increase our activity level we tend to eat more calories and thus tend not to experience body composition shifts (ie. Weight/Fat Loss). Caloric restriction combined with exercise CAN result in short term weight loss that almost inevitably results in a rebound to an even heavier and fatter state, after the ordeal of semi-starvation and exercise. Conventional wisdom posits that we MUST exercise to remain healthy AND LOSE WEIGHT. It is fairly clear that smart amounts of exercise are beneficial for a wide range of health reasons including but not limited to bone density, immune function, mental outlook and digestion to name a few. Paradoxically however, exercise appears to play little or no role in fat loss.
I know this sounds like Orwellian Doublespeak but a perusal of the literature certainly bears this out. For the empiricists out there however, perhaps we should not put too much stock in research…what happens in the real world? Well, here is my experience:
For the past four, going on five years we have operated a Crossfit strength & conditioning facility. This is an oblique way of saying that we kick-people’s asses and for some damn reason they pay us for the fanny waxing and even return for additional helpings. What can I say, people are weird! The folks whom we have worked with tend to fall into a few categories:
1-Eat poorly (quality) and not enough.
2-Eat poorly and too much.
3-Eat well, pretty much just right.
The interesting thing is the folks who eat poorly (bad food composition, grains, sugar, legumes and other horrors) make some progress with regards to performance but they see little to no changes in body composition. Pretty much NONE. These folks tend to over train, get sick and generally fall off the program on a frequent basis. By contrast the folks who eat what we tell them to eat, a paleo/zone plan, these folks experience STUNNING bodycomp shifts and almost continuous progress. I experienced almost 4 straight years of improvements every time I trained with CrossFit. The progress has slowed and I suspect I need to increase my body weight to see a real increase in performance but that’s a different topic.
Back to our clients. The folks who do not eat well are frequently VERY active: runners, cyclists (the WORST damn clients I have EVER TRAINED…I may never train another) and they are universally chubby and poor performers in the mixed modal activities they PAY us to train them in and interestingly, they are poor performers at their chosen endeavors as well. These folks refuse to alter their nutrition and they progress glacially, if at all.
The folks who comply with the nutrition recommendations, like I said, make amazing body composition shifts and improve performance to a staggering level.
If you have followed what I said you might wonder what the heck I’m talking about. In one line I say exercise does not work for bodycomp and in another I cite research that caloric restriction is also bunk for fat reduction…so what gives? Super simple: Our nutritional recommendations are focused at insulin control. You could also say that our nutritional recommendations are what we are designed to eat and thrive on…but that sounds all hoity-toity. I wish soooo much that simply crushing people during a workout would solve the fat and body comp problem however, it simply does not. There are 168hrss in the week. We can crush folks for 3 of those hours and then they can destroy themselves with bad food choices for the remaining 165hrs. From what we see in the literature and day to day experience, we could exercise people morning, noon and night and if the food composition is poor they will pack in enough insulin spiking food to maintain or even regress. It’s a bummer, but it’s true.