Deep Dive

EXERCISE AND WEIGHT LOSS

Conventional wisdom says that to lose weight you need to exercise. Exercise burns calories, and burning calories means less body fat. Except it is not that simple. Time and again, research has shown that exercising a few times a week has a negligible effect on weight loss. All those hours of sweating and toiling. All in vain.

There are a few reasons for this. Exercise does burn calories, but at a much lower rate than people imagine. What’s more, intense exercise quickly depletes your glycogen stores, increasing your appetite for sugars. In short, intense exercise gives you the munchies. And because a power bar or energy drink is easier than a nutritious meal, it is common for people to undo all their efforts by filling up with cleverly marketed sugars. People also tend to overestimate the effort they put in. The snacks they allow themselves as a reward often contain more calories than what they spent exercising.

If you want your exercises to sustainably burn off calories, you have to stay in the “easy to moderate” exercise zone. The easiest way to define this is that you should be able to carry out a normal conversation without feeling out of breath or getting dizzy. If you exercise harder, your body will not burn fat but send signals to your brain that it needs more glucose. This is why we recommend moderate walking exercises as a good basis for a lean and healthy physique. In nature, walking exercises were what made up most of a person’s workouts.

But a natural exercise regime also includes strength workouts and the occasional sprint. Strength exercises also help you lose weight, but in a more indirect way. Although strength exercises have little to no immediate effect on your body weight, they do build muscle mass. And muscles burn calories, even when you are not working out. So if you can increase your muscle mass, you will burn fat more effectively when you are resting. Note that muscles weigh more than fat, so your scales are not telling you the whole story. Doing the occasional sprint allows you to improve your heart-and-lung fitness without doing prolonged cardio workouts.

Regardless of your exercise program, don’t eat more just because you have exercised. The whole point of eating nutritious food is that you will have the energy to live life. Trust us, 15 minutes of strength exercises or 30 minutes of riding a bike are nothing special, so eating extra calories really isn’t necessary. If you’ve done intense sprint or strength exercises and have the munchies, make sure you have an apple or an orange ready to bite into to refill your muscle’s glycogen stores without piling up unhealthy sugars.