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Exercise: Ineffective for Weight Loss

39 Comments

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.

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  1. Shaf
    October 25, 2007 at 2:32 am

    Taube’s assumption that there is a metabolic advantage to a low carb diet above and beyond that of calorie restriction isn’t a problem for you, Robb? I think Anthony Colpo had some harsh words for that particular fantasy of the low carb set.

    http://www.lowcarbmuscle.com/forums/showthread.php?p=5694#post5694

    A lot of Colpo nutswingers, but some very valid comments.

    I’m still waiting on the book from the library. Apparently it’s quite popular, since I was sixth on the queue the day it came out.

    Aside from that, better food choices and habits is the key to eliminating bodyfat for myself. I know this, yet it’s continually a problem. Lazy and disinclined to change. My stints with strict low carbs or semi-strict Zone are markedly better than my stints with IF and poor food choices. IF plus proper food choices is what is going to probably be my personal best path for body comp changes.

    I’m not quite a full blown PM style nutter about it, though, yet. It’s still vaccinations and nightshades for me.

    Shaf-

    Taubes does not present it as magic, just that in the long term insulin control is THE most effective way to reduce bodyfat. I think Dr. Eades did a great piece dispelling the thermodynamic question a while back. No laws of the universe are violated in a low carb scenario but here is an interesting scenario:

    Two caloric restricted diets. Equal calories but one is lets say 80% fat and 20% protein (ketogenic), the other lets say protein, carbs and fat but in classic high carb, low fat fashion. 60% carbs, 20% fat, 20% protein. The folks eating the protein/fat plan will receive a “thermodynamic advantage” in that some of the protein and glycerol backbones of the fats will be converted, inefficiently, into glucose. Even in ketosis we make some glucose for certain tissues and for things like the pentose phosphate pathway to make ribose for DNA. That is NOT an efficient process and one will tend to whittle through a significant number of calories in that process as compared to the higher carb scenario in which all the carb needs are met dietarily. That is one element. The other is the markedly lower insulin levels and thus HUNGER in the ketogenic state. This was one of my issues with the use of the standard Zone with CrossFit in that for many folks that is too many carbs too often. In our training practice I have folks at about 1/2 the recommended carbs for the base zone, I add more fat and if they will actually do what I ask them to do they lean out and are never hungry. Snacky, perhaps. Bored perhaps, but not hungry in that Always-Hungry-Carb-Crash-Zombie fashion.

    The book also highlights some interesting phenomena:feed 100 people one thousand excess calories per day for six months…what happens? The conventional wisdom holds that EVERYONE gains weight. The reality is that some gain no weight and for others the weight gain can range by a factor of 10! Anywhere from 1lb. to 10lbs. Interesting, paradoxical and complex stuff. I may be full of shit but I really think insulin control is the key for whatever ones desired bodycomp goal is.

    I also enjoy both nightshades and vaccinations. I do live in Chico after all.
    Robb

  2. Chris
    October 25, 2007 at 6:23 am

    I’m reading Taubes book at the moment too. It is fantastic. Although I’ve been doing a low carb almost paleo diet for a few years, I am finding that Taubes is challenging my prejudices against fat people. Despite what I know about diet I think I still see fat guys as lazy. I’m obviously rethinking that. However I still think they make stupid food choices even according to conventional wisdom (too much sugar)

    On another topic did you see this release on CR:
    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-10/uab-srd102407.php

    Chris-
    Great stuff! It is an interesting paradox that caloric restriction and or Intermittent fasting might actually forestall muscle loss and performance decreases associated with aging. Ketosis appears to mimic certain elements of this scenario and this is what has lead me to recomend some intermittent fasting and “enough” carbs to do the activities you want to do. If you are a CrossFitter Zone levels are about right. For a sprinter or Olifter you can likely get by on much less and IMO stay in or near ketosis most of the time. Very interesting stuff.

  3. Scott Kustes
    October 25, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Another killer post Robb! I was mentioning the other day in a post on my blog that good nutrition trumps exercise, sleep, and recovery by a long shot. Your folks are proof-positive that all the exercise in the world cannot overcome poor dietary habits in the long-term. Sure, anything is possible while we’re young, but as we age, the poor diet takes its toll on the body’s systems and the “inevitable” weight gain and ill health start.

    On the other hand, even when I haven’t been exercising, I’ve found that maintaining a Paleo diet keeps me at around the same body weight and body fat %. Since Paleo is an incredibly satiating way to eat, my body tends to cut back on how much food it wants. It’s amazing (well, not really) that when you give the body the foods that it has evolved to thrive on, it thrives and life is relatively simple. Body weight normalizes, poor health lessens or disappears completely.

    What’s your thoughts Robb? I tend to look at it as nutrition 75%, exercise 15%, recovery (sleep, etc) 10%. Maybe the percentages are off, but that’s the value that should be placed on nutrition.

    Ok, that’s enough rambling.
    Cheers
    Scott Kustes
    Modern Forager

    Scott-
    It is interesting. I have struggled to gain weight, hopefully muscle my whole life. I am by no means huge but it’s relatively easy for me to run around at 170-175lbs now and I’m lean and have great performance. This actually seems to get easier as time goes on and I swear I am eating less over all. I think I have about the same amount of muscle no matter what I do, just sometimes I’m fatter and sometimes leaner. When I leave things alone things certainly go better than the micromanaging and force feeding.

    As to percentages… I’m inclined to say 49% nutrition and 49% sleep leaving 1% to exercise and 1% to other lifestyle factors! This is an exaggeration but it just seems like if either the food or sleep go sideways, everything else follows suit.
    Robb

  4. Chris
    October 25, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    The other thing I was thinking about this when reading this was something Art Devany has just pointed out, that exercise raises insulin sensitivity

    Chris-
    It’s true and most of the studies cited rely on long duration cardio for the exercise effect. What if we looked at sprints? I think the research that has gone this direction shows some better bodycomp shifts.

  5. Craig Cooper
    October 26, 2007 at 9:10 pm

    Here’s Taubes NY Times article about Exercise not helping with weight loss:

    http://nymag.com/news/sports/38001/

    DeVany wrote a response to it in his blog today:

    http://www.arthurdevany.com

    And here is the Eade’s post about low-carbing and the metabolic advantage:

    http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/2007/10/04/thermodynamics-and-weight-loss/

    I think that Eade’s post is pretty compelling stuff, and Taube’s book is amazing. I’ve been duped before, but this all makes way too much sense to me.

    Craig-
    It’s certainly interesting stuff. I sent an email to Prof. Devany with some more details on my experiences in this area.
    Robb

  6. Ratzo
    October 29, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    Hi Robb,

    I posted this question on Art Devany’s site, since I am very curious about it.

    If insulin is the key to body composition, then how are there people in studies who are insulin sensitive yet who are obese?

    Ratzo-
    Different tissues can be insulin sensitive or resistant. The folks who have a normal glucose tolerance test and or “normal” insulin levels may just be along a continuum towards a propensity to be insulin resistant. Relatively normal readings but for them they may have insulin resistance.
    If you can dig up a few detailed studies I can try to figure out what the situation is in those cases. Short of that I’m afraid the best I can offer is the above.
    Robb

  7. Ratzo
    October 29, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    Robb,

    Here is a good review study on the subject where Gerald Reaven (who wrote aboute Syndrome X) mentions there are a substantial number of overweight/obese people who are insulin sensitive:

    Diab Vasc Dis Res. 2005 Oct;2(3):105-12.
    All obese individuals are not created equal: insulin resistance is the major determinant of cardiovascular disease in overweight/obese individuals.

    Reaven G. Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California 94305, USA. greaven@cvmed.stanford.edu

    The ability of insulin to mediate glucose disposal varies more than six-fold in an apparently healthy population, and approximately one third of the most insulin-resistant of these individuals are at increased risk to develop cardiovascular disease. Differences in degree of adiposity account for approximately 25% of this variability, and another 25% varies as a function of level of physical fitness. The more overweight/obese the person, the more likely they are to be insulin-resistant and at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but substantial numbers of overweight/obese individuals remain insulin-sensitive, and not all insulin-resistant persons are obese. Of greater clinical relevance is evidence that the metabolic benefit and decrease in risk of cardiovascular disease following weight loss occurs primarily in those overweight/obese individuals that are also insulin-resistant. The relationship between insulin resistance and overall obesity, as assessed by measurement of body mass index, is essentially the same as the relationship between insulin action and abdominal obesity as quantified by determining waist circumference. Finally, there appears to be a comparable relationship between insulin-mediated glucose disposal and amount of visceral fat, subcutaneous fat, and total fat as quantified by various imaging techniques, and the magnitude of these relationships is no greater than that between insulin action and simple measure of body mass index.

    Ratzo-
    Thanks for tracking that down! I’m going to expand on this in another post.
    Robb

  8. Chris
    November 1, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    Rob – I thought this was an interesting take on this debate:

    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-11/quot-wl-110107.php

    as does this abstract:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=17557973&ordinalpos=6&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

    An activity-induced increase in energy expenditure theoretically disturbs energy balance (EB) by creating an acute energy deficit. Compensatory responses could influence the weight loss associated with the energy deficit. Individual variability in compensation for perturbations in EB could partly explain why some individuals fail to lose weight with exercise. It is accepted that the regulatory system will readily defend impositions that promote a negative EB. Therefore, a criticism of exercise interventions is that they will be ineffective and futile methods of weight control because the acute energy deficit is counteracted. Compensation for exercise-induced energy deficits can be categorized into behavioral or metabolic responses and automatic or volitional. An automatic compensatory response is a biological inevitability and considered to be obligatory. An automatic compensatory response is typically a metabolic consequence (e.g., reduced resting metabolic rate) of a negative EB. In contrast, a volitional compensatory response tends to be deliberate and behavioral, which the individual intentionally performs (e.g., increased snack intake). The purpose of this review is to highlight the various metabolic and behavioral compensatory responses that could reduce the effectiveness of exercise and explain why some individuals experience a lower than expected weight loss. We propose that the extent and degree of compensation will vary between individuals. That is, some individuals will be predisposed to compensatory responses that render them resistant to the weight loss benefits theoretically associated with an exercise-induced increase in energy expenditure. Therefore, given the inter-individual variability in behavioral and metabolic compensatory responses, exercise prescriptions might be more effective if tailored to suit individuals

    Chris-
    You get best link finder of the year award! Great stuff. Here is an interesting snippet from the first:

    “Those resistant to exercise might be better suited to weight management strategies which include controlled dietary intake, in addition to exercise.”

    Uh…yep, but folks have a hell of a time with caloric restriction. The rebound eating and DECREASE in activity level and energy expenditure are pretty potent. The nutritional intervention is nearly always high carb, low fat. it simply does not work. Low carb DOES work but compliance with most dietary interventions is pretty low. But I guess the choices are:1-intervention that is tough to stick to and does not work. 2-Intervention that is tough to stick to and does work.
    thanks again for the great links.
    Robb

  9. Eric Forsell
    November 10, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    A lot of people don’t realize that exercise is not a good way to lose weight. Gary Taube’s book is an excellent source of eye opening facts. I am pretty well read when it comes to low carb but his book opened my eyes to a few things.

    Anthony Colpo has also opened my eyes in the past. He seems to believe that a little carbohydrate can help, no more than 10%.

    Eric-
    Taubes book is fantastic, no doubt about it! I have seen first hand what poor nutrition combined with good training can achieve for the past 5 years…almost nothing with regards to body comp changes.

    Regarding carbs and Colpo: There is no doubt there are situations that absolutely necessitate certain carb intake levels. I don’t think anyone, least of all Dr. Eades or Gary Taubes, have said anything contrary to this however Anthony really takes them to task on some topics such as a mixed calorie restricted diet vs a simple low carb diet. It starts looking like hair splitting to me but that’s a whole other thing.
    Robb

  10. Scott S
    January 6, 2009 at 4:25 am

    I have been working as a personal trainer for over 5 years and see a lot of the same things talked about in the article. I work at a personal training studio and as they want to make money through getting people to workout 3 times a week, we discuss things like the 3 hours (2% of their weekly hours) they work out compared to the other hours in the week and discuss nutrition with them. I am leaning more towards teaching nutrition and using personal training as a way to get people ready for sports or activities than to lose weight. I think weight loss is a stupid goal in itself as people think they can just say they want to did it and still eat crap. Maybe we need to educate our clients more on nutrition and less on fitness! That is our job now. I am not a crossfit certified instructor (my brother is though), but have been using this site for a few months now and enjoy the short hard stuff! Thanks for making us think and working us hard!

  11. Marshall
    January 6, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    Is it possible to test for insulin sensitivity with a routine blood test. I’d like to have it checked at my doctor.

    triglycerides are a great indicator of insulin sensitivity. You want them to be LOW.

  12. Les
    April 3, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    It’s funny, my experience is different. When I was a long distance runner, I could eat anything, still my weight was constant. And I ate HUGE amount of carbohydrate. Nowadays I eat far less cho and I’m lifting weight, mostly compunds movements. But I must monitor the calories I eat to not gain fat.

  13. DavidStewartZink
    May 26, 2009 at 3:37 am

    I’ve never understood the argument that “calories in” matter without a firm measurement of calories out, and I mean stool. It’s mostly bacteria and grease, it’s full of calories and it’s completely different depending on diet. I’m sure I make pounds more stool each week than I make carbon dioxide, and anything that comes out my ass doesn’t go on my hips. Are there any studies in the modern era that tackle diet differentiated stool calories? vegans especially are fond of talking about how special their stool is. Is it really?

    • robbwolf
      May 26, 2009 at 4:51 am

      David-
      This truly is a “left field question’…try looking for studies that are done under conditions of a metabolic ward. this is where the dookie gets analyzed.

  14. diet4weight
    September 22, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Nice Articles … thanks for sharing

  15. Pat M
    May 4, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Robb,

    I recently asked you about this, I should have checked your archives. Thanks for this post. Looks like you are on the same page with Taubes. Exercise does not directly cause weightloss/fatloss.

    This is still a contrarian message, however, when people who are overweight, watch “The Biggest Loser” and get the crazy ideal that they need to train 3hours a day to lose weight, they need to hear this message. They do not need to exercise. To lose weight and significantly reduce their risks of DOC, all they really need to do is eat less carbohydrate.

    As always, thanks for all the information.

    Pat M

  16. Zoe K
    October 2, 2010 at 12:30 am

    Last semester, I took Introduction to Nutrition (I’m a junior at UC Berkeley) and I noticed a glaring contradiction in the material concerning fat and carb metabolism and recommended daily intakes. Towards the beginning of the course, the professor put up a diagram that showed what ratio of carb to fat your body burns at varying levels of activity. Here is a recap:

    *Low levels of activity (sitting, sleeping, standing, and slow walking) burn 87.5% fat and 12.5% carbs.
    *Moderate level of activity (brisk walking/slow jogging or equivalent exercise) burn 55% fat and 45% carbs.
    *High levels of activity (intense exercise) burn 33% fat and 67% carbs. (This makes sense for athletes who “carb-up” before the big competition)

    The professor also taught us that we should consume the following ratios of total calorie intake each day:
    Carbs 50-60%
    Fat 20-30%
    Protein 10-20%

    I questioned these percentages when I considered my own activity level. I am a student, so most of my hours are spent in a chair or in bed. These are obviously low level activities, so I must be burning more fat than carbs on any given day. Why would I want to get half or more of my calories from carbs, which once digested will be stored, when the type of macronutrient I burn the most as a sedentary student is fat?

    Now I find Gary Taubes (thanks to another class at Cal) and it all makes sense.

    I understand Taubes has gotten a lot of criticism from the scientific community for not backing up his claims with enough scientific evidence. I have a feeling people might swallow his ideas more easily if he could link the obesity epidemic that has taken off in the last few decades to increased average carbohydrate consumption in America. I don’t know if this data exists, but it couldn’t hurt his reputation if does line up.

    • Robb Wolf
      October 3, 2010 at 8:35 am

      If Tubes did ANYTHING it was provide adequate references!! We just need to wait for the old guard to die off. Facts will not change minds apparently.

  17. JP from lose thighs fat
    May 31, 2011 at 1:22 am

    Nice post, very useful knowledge. Will bookmark this post

  18. Greg Gorahm
    July 5, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Hey rob I’m just getting into what is new to me, this thing called “The Paleo lifestyle” I had never heard of this way of eating or looking at food in this manner before but I am very impressed and want to encourage my daughter to get into it as well, she has a weight problem, and I think this new way of eating will help her a lot. Keep up the good work and I will devour this new way of eating and share it with my friends and family.

    Your new fan
    -Greg

  19. Sandra Hopkins
    September 8, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Great post. I have worked with a lot of people that are unable to exercise due to health problems, other than gentle walking. They are frustrated as they feel their weight loss could greatly be enhanced with exercise.

    It is good to learn that exercise can be ineffective for weight loss!

  20. Losing Fat Pounds
    September 21, 2011 at 5:57 am

    Can I just say what a relief to seek out someone who essentially knows what they’re talking about on the net. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it critical. Additional people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not much more popular because you definitely have the gift.

  21. Dave
    November 12, 2011 at 4:06 am

    Hit the nail right on the head. We can science it up all we want but if you are not eating properly than exercise is only helping your cardiovascular system. I say only but that is not a bad thing either. I have been in the army for 26 years and have seen this very thing. Mind you these people (not eating properly) can run forever but never lose that weight. A calorie intake cut does help alot but it needs to be done properly and keeping a persons health in mind. It must be a slow calorie intake cut done in a healthy way. I find that meal replacement shakes are an excellent way of weining off of the bad foods and showing a person that a small change can make a big difference.

    Very well written btw and enjoyed your article. I look forward to more like this.

  22. Jan Cleland
    December 16, 2011 at 2:50 am

    Very interested never head of
    “The Paelo Lifestyle” before but sound a great lifestyle and will definately read some the books recommended.

    Great Blog thanks

  23. Roy Montgomery
    May 14, 2013 at 6:01 am

    Diet and exercise are the pillar stones of any weight loss. You must have a nutritional and balanced diet and remain active to maintain a reasonable level of fitness and weight.

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