Over the past few months including COVID lockdown, I have been getting an increased amount of questions from you, all about weight loss:
What exercise should I do more of to lose the belly?Should I start training twice a day?Why isn’t my weight decreasing even though I walk twice as much every day?Is it better for weight loss if I do 2 hours on the elliptical machine or 2 hours of walking?Should I start running?What are the best kettlebell exercises to lose weight?Should I do intermittent fasting? Should I cut out sugar?I’m training every day, why is my weight not decreasing?and on and on…
So, I decided to write this post to hopefully help you understand the relationship between exercise and weight loss once and for all.
When it comes to exercise that is aimed at weight loss, it is a grossly ineffective tool for the job. It is so ineffective in fact, that it does more harm than good and I would actually advise against it.
1. Exercise is vitally important for HEALTH
Before we go into why exercise isn’t very helpful for losing fat, let’s just get one thing very clear: exercise is vital for health. Regular exercise reduces blood sugar, blood pressure and triglycerides. It decreases the risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Alzheimers, stroke, heart attack, certain forms of cancer. It boosts immunity (especially outdoors exercise), improves cognitive ability, slows down cognitive decline and increases energy levels. It stabilizes mood and hormones and is the best-known (and least promoted, because you cannot bottle and sell it) treatment for depression.
Exercise helps with healthy weight maintenance (case in point: out of all the Biggest Loser participants studied, it wasn’t the winners who were most likely to keep the weight off long term, but those who kept up a moderate exercise regime after they lost weight).
Exercise is also what’s called ” the Cornerstone Habit” meaning it is a habit that once adopted, sets off a whole chain of other positive habits in one’s life, such as better eating, better sleeping, higher productivity, better focus, reduction of smoking and drinking etc. Regular exercise leads to increased confidence, a sense of self-efficacy and self-respect.
So, exercise is life. It is vitally important. And that’s why I do what I do.
2. Exercise alone is nearlyuselesswhen it comes to fat loss.
And no, it is NOT about doing that one magic workout routine, running intervals, doing sprints, using that one special tool (not even kettlebells, sorry to break this to you) or combining ‘weights and cardio’. There is no ‘killer finisher’ that will ‘melt the fat off you’. And there is no 8-week Bootcamp challenge that will lead to healthy and, more importantly, sustained weight loss.
That is because while what we eat is responsible for 100% of our energy input, our physical activity (of which formal exercise is only a tiny part) is responsible for less than 30% of our caloric output*.
*Unless we are professional athletes. In the case of athletes, the problem is how to get in all the calories they need, and they need a lot more than it is healthy for a regular human being. Hence the use of shakes, to bypass digestion. Professional athletes have notoriously disordered digestive systems due to the vast amounts of food they have to process on a daily basis. Having done some elite competing for 5 years myself, I can attest to that.
Most of our caloric output happens from the life maintenance processes such as breathing, organ function, temperature maintenance, brain function etc. So, our caloric output is mostly NOT under our voluntary control.
3. Fat-Loss Exercise is Harmful to Long Term health and wellbeing
Think about modern fat-loss exercise styles: exhausting Bootcamp sessions, frantically alternating between cardio and weights, hundreds of burpees (not burpees gracefully performed as a skill for getting on and off the ground, mind you, but UGLY burpees, those that look like a dying fish), interval training, circuits, sets to failure – sweat blood and tears in other words.
There are four problems here:
If you have ever done these forms of exercise for any length of time, you know how HUNGRY such activity makes you feel. What you might not know is that the increase in your high-intensity exercise-induced calorie consumption is disproportionately LARGER than ALL the calories you burn through that exercise – yes, including the ‘afterburn’. Ouch. And, to add insult to injury, if you engage in such exercise for a significant period of time (longer than 8 weeks), it will RESET your appetite to crave MORE food even when you reduce your activity or stop exercising completely. Double ouch.That’s why so many athletes from high-intensity sports like Rugby grow rather… rotund once they stop their gruelling training regimes. The training is over but the new appetite setting is much harder to retrain.
Intense fat-loss exercise causes physiological changes that undermine lat loss. Whaaat? Google ‘metabolic compensation’ and you’ll know what I mean. It is a well-known phenomenon of unconsciously reducing ALL your physical activity throughout the day following an intense exercise session. The body compensates by becoming stationary. Lack of activity throughout the day is terrible for overall health and wellbeing, not to mention your waistline.
And let’s not forget about injuries. There is a concept used in the fat-loss exercise circles, that of Inefficient Exercise. The theory goes, if you engage in forms of exercise that your body doesn’t know how to do well, you will move inefficiently (aka ‘flail about’) which requires more calories to be burned. So, what you have to do is constantly seek out exercises that you are BAD at, and do them at high intensity. Then, as soon as you are becoming better at them, you must begin doing some other exercise that you are bad at, to preserve the inefficiency. Do I even need to explain this? And this leads to a much more sinister final problem.
The biggest issue, in my opinion, is psychological. We have established in the very beginning that exercise is vital for life-long health and wellbeing. However, the hyper-intensive style of exercise that is geared at fat-loss is very far from pleasant, rewarding or sustainable. The most commonly seen psychological effects of such exercise lead to the same outcome …. beginning to hate exercise and quitting altogether. Now, that’s a real blow to health.
Now, add to this mess the ‘inefficiency principle’. Not only are you performing hard miserable gruelling labour but you are also not letting yourself get better at anything. So, you suck, all the time. After all this energy wasted (less than half of the 30% of your energy expenditure, remember), you have gained no skills and have probably acquired some lasting injuries for your trouble. Oh, and you hate exercise to boot. Nice.
There are actually many more reasons not to use exercise for weight loss, but if you wanted me to put one final nail in that coffin, this should do it. Multiple junk food producers (Coca Cola, US Department of Agriculture, PepsiCo, Cargill, Mondelez and Nestle, to name just a few) spend inordinate amounts of money to lobby the government to name lack of physical activity as the main cause for obesity, and to promote public gyms and exercise incentives. Why do they do it? Because naturally, without the lobbying, the hundreds upon hundreds of studies linking poor nutrition with obesity will become public knowledge and that means a reduction in profits. Instead, a different agenda is pushed – eat your cake and then train it off at the gym. Very handy, wouldn’t you say? Except, of course, it doesn’t work.
So, what can we do instead?
Here are three things you can do to reduce your body fat sustainably and without damaging your health or psyche in the process.
1) Eat for nutritional density.
This means foods that provide a bang for their caloric buck in nutrients. This means whole foods, not processed foods. Meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Begin here and adapt to your lifestyle and taste.
2) Keep track.
This means different things to different people. Keep a food journal for at least 6 weeks out of a year. Measure your waistline or take photos every 4-8 weeks. Even weigh yourself once a week, if it doesn’t stress you out (remember ladies, it’s just a number and doesn’t say anything about your worth as a human being).
Personally, I don’t do any of the above. Instead, I prefer to measure fitness progress, especially those movements that depend on moving my own bodyweight. How fast can I run 2.4 kilometres compared to 8 weeks ago? How many more push-ups or chin-ups or burpees can I do with perfect form than I could do last month? Do I still fulfil the Kettlebell Academy fitness standard for my sex and age? Those things tell me more about what really matters to me that any waist measurement could. However, to each their own. Do what works for you, but do measure something.
3) Do exercise for health, consistency and mastery, not fat loss.
Since the positive effects of exercise are so vast and since they accumulate with time, CONSISTENCY is the most crucial factor to which all other factors should be secondary. This means that anything, ANYTHING that might negatively affect your exercise consistency, should be seriously reviewed and potentially discarded.
Mastery and improvement are great contributors to consistency because we like doing what we do well, and we like to improve. Learning a valuable movement skill (like kettlebells 🙂 that translates into many areas of life is a gift that keeps on giving forever.
I cannot emphasise this enough. If you prioritize health, have an unshakable exercise consistency and train in the pursuit of mastery, the world is your oyster. This is what I dedicated my life to teaching. This is what Kettlebell Academy is all about.
Bonus: Thing to do #4
Dial in your sleep. Numerous studies (as well as life experience, professional experience and mom’s advice) indicate that consistent good quality sleep is the main ingredient in having a healthy weight. Conversely, for many people who seem to be doing everything ‘right’, sleep is often the missing link when it comes to shifting extra fat. Sleep controls your appetite centres as well as how your body stores energy. Focusing on improving sleep until you get 7-9 hours per night will also lead you to improving your nutrition and getting a healthy amount of exercise, as those factors affect your sleep in a big way.
I hope this article has been helpful. I would love to hear your thoughts, either via email or in the comments.
Be well and keep swinging those kettlebells!
Yours in health and fitness