Why Exercise Can Make You Fat
About a month ago, a friend of mine told me he was going to try to lose some weight.
So he started Insanity.
He was willing to put himself through hell (that’s pretty much the definition of insanity, right?) to lose some weight and finally get lean.
I gotta admit, his intentions were great.
And I was happy to see him finally put his body first. That’s half the battle right there.
But there was only one problem…
Which I discovered after I asked him one simple question:
How are you going to change your diet?
After a short, blank stare, the answer was just as short.
Knowing his typical eating habits are on par with your typical college freshman, I knew there was no way in hell he was even going to lose a pound on this journey, even if he managed to get through the whole Insanity program (which many people don’t).
So why is this the case?
Why do so many of us have this ridiculous belief that we can change our body composition with exercise alone?
Well, to start, we’ve all heard the mantra:
“Weight loss is 80% diet, 20% exercise.”
And I not only agree with this, I think it’s even more extreme…
Something like 95% diet, 5% exercise.
Let me explain my reasoning…
The fact of the matter is, no matter how good your training routine is; no matter how hard you push yourself in the gym; no matter how many plates you’re lifting or kilometres you’re running…
You simply can’t out-train a poor diet.
But the question is ‘why’…why does this happen?
Let’s first take a look at a study published back in 2006 by researchers Paul Williams and Peter Wood who have been studying the effect of exercise on health since the 1970s.
The two researchers collected detailed information on roughly thirteen thousand habitual runners and then compared the weekly mileage of these runners with how much they weighed from year to year [source].
Yes, those who ran the most tended to weigh the least, but all of these runners got fatter with each passing year.
Some of these men ran 40 miles per week and still managed to get fatter.
How can that be?
Well, apart from the fact that we are completely misguided on the reasons as to why exactly we get fat, it’s really the media that’s been pushing this thought that exercise can get us lean.
It’s the media and health officials pushing this (false) notion that weight loss is all about energy expenditure vs energy consumption.
That “expending more calories than we consume” actually works.
Here are two things you need to consider:
First, we actually burn very few calories during moderate exercise, which (unfortunately) can easily be undone (and very often is) by even the slightest change in diet.
“A 250-pound man will burn three extra calories climbing one flight of stairs, as Louis Newburgh of the University of Michigan calculated in 1942. “He will have to climb twenty flights of stairs to rid himself of the energy contained in one slice of bread!” -from Gary Taubes’ book Why we get Fat
I’ve tested this myself by tracking my caloric expenditure after a 15 min HIIT session on the treadmill. I burned roughly between 300-400 calories. Not so bad for 15 minutes of work. [I’ll link to the video of the test when it’s up] But, all that hard work can completely (and quickly) be undone with one extra snack that we think we deserve because of, ironically, how hard we worked.
You see, the chances of you not consuming something a little extra after a workout are very slim.
Probably on par with your chances of winning the lottery.
I say this with confidence because (and this leads me to my second point) consuming that something extra is driven by nature.
The fact is, exercise makes us hungry.
Exercise increases our appetite.
“Vigorous muscle exercise usually results in immediate demand for a large meal,” noted Hugo Rony of Northwestern University in 1940. “Consistently high or low energy expenditures result in consistently high or low levels of appetite. Thus men doing heavy physical work spontaneously eat more than men engaged in sedentary occupations.” -from Gary Taubes’ book Why we get Fat
Appetite and, essentially, the amount of food we eat is expected to increase the more we exercise.
That’s the reason exercise alone won’t get you lean.
In fact, if you’re not careful, exercise can make you fatter!
Sure you’ll burn off a bunch of calories with even the most intense of training, but this intensity (and duration) of exercise is strongly correlated with the appetite that follows.
Many of us are not aware of this, or we are and are under the impression that it’s OK to eat whatever we want after we exercise. Some of us don’t want to eat after we train but cave in to mother nature’s design and scuff down way more than we normally would have had we not exercised.
How many people do you know that eat like crazy after a workout?
I can count plenty (me being one of them).
Because it’s all driven by nature.
And people who can’t control this natural state of being (or those who don’t understand how fat tissue is regulated in general) are the ones who are likely to suffer the most. It’s these people that get fatter even with (and, ironically, because of) exercise.
It’s just nature doing its job…
Keeping our energy supplies high in case we need to suffer through a famine or run away from a predator (hopefully neither is the case for you).
Note: I’m in no way implying that exercise is bad. Exercise is very beneficial and necessary for the health and strength of your heart, lungs, brain and is a vital component for building a better body. But, on its own, it’s not very effective for fat loss.
So what are your options?
Exercise alone won’t get you lean.
But exercise combined with the right nutrition plan – one that is focused on foods that don’t trigger fat accumulation – is the optimal way of achieving your fat loss goals.
We have to shift our focus to the quality of foods we are eating, not the quantity.
Note: I’ll be writing a number of posts on foods that trigger fat accumulation in the coming months.
What are your thoughts on exercise and how it relates to getting lean or slim? Do you think it’s possible to achieve the results you want without re-structuring your diet?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.