I love exercise. I encourage all people to take up some form of physical fitness, because the benefits are remarkable and documented.
But is weight loss one of those benefits?
I work for an organization–the US Army–that mandates physical exercise. It doesn’t just say: do pushups and run whenever you can. It makes its supervisors, NCOs, make sure that soldiers are exercising and then it tests those soldiers bi-annually to make sure they are making the grade. It also has weight and bodyfat standards. Yet there are tons of what I would call, skinny-fat people in the Army. Their legs and arms look skinny, but their guts and butts tell a different story. They look doughy and soft. Rather weak.
Most of these people, I think, have come under the illusion that if you work out on most days, you can plow however much food you wish into your mouth and still lose weight. And actually, thinking like that, combined with excercise, may actually be making us fatter than no exercise at all. Exercise makes you hungry–hungrier than not exercising.
I just read an article in Time Magazine, written by John Cloud. Cloud talks about various studies that conclude people, working out, typically ingest more calories than when they were sedentary. He also shows that normal movement throughout the day, in addition to eating a spare amount of calories, may be more effective than regular trips to the gym at helping people lose weight. To my surprise, I agreed with most of what Cloud said.
There is a light at the end of the dark tunnel, however. In the article, Cloud laments that he’s 163 lbs, and that he was only able to reach that weight by cutting out dessert.
I’ll step aside for a moment, and let the an expert–perhaps the foremost on body mass control–do some talking: Clarence Bass.
I think Bass’ best point is that Cloud doesn’t seem to enjoy his exercise. Whatever someone decides to do, they’d best enjoy it if they wish to have long-term results. He also shows that short, intense bursts are much more efficient than steady-state aerobics in building fitness. I’m not saying stop running for distance if you enjoy it. I’m only saying that if you don’t like it, there are options.
Like Bass, I prefer intervals and weight lifting or calisthenics. Sometimes I do like a long run, but before I came in the Army, I almost never ran more than a mile or so. I did interval sprints and lifted kettlebells. I was lean and strong. I’d skip breakfast sometimes. I’d allow myself to get hungry once in a while, but not always. In the Army, I run more, but most of that is only to prepare for an upcoming physical test, then I tend to move back to my old training ways. But I like to change it up. This past weekend, I ran in my first 10k race, placed second in my age group despite not having run in three weeks. It hurt, I admit, but the change and the challenge are good. Competition gives a reason to stay fit.
Keeping with Bass’ point about choosing exercise you like, let’s look at my deadlift training. While I’m deadlifting, I get a surge of energy. Low rep, high intensity (weight) gives your nervous system a charge. I get so jacked up from doing the deadlift, that I have to purposely put the breaks on to keep myself from doing too much. Three sets of five reps can build incredible strength over time, provided you follow the progressive overload principle and don’t allow yourself to burn out. Point is, I love this training and want to do it. I run for distance because I have to, therefore I slack on running when I don’t have to.
Pick stuff you like, do that the most, and add a touch of other things that you need for health. Do what you like 75% of the time. The rest, do what doesn’t come so naturally. You’ll find that the change of pace keeps you motivated, but doesn’t grind you down by becoming punishment.
As far as diet goes, I agree with Cloud that exercise can make you hungry, especially lots of aerobic exercise. As I’ve said in other articles, my weight has been steady for over a decade. My bodyfat % is around 8. I shifted to a diet very similar to Clarence Bass’ plus some intermittent fasting and fairly quickly dropped about 10lbs. Bass says low fat, moderate protein and heavy on the veggies is the way to go. I didn’t worry about fat (chicken skin and all), didn’t eat as much bread as Bass does (he eats it every day, the heavy, whole grain type) and went very heavy on the salad. I’m not talking lots of lettuce in the salad. I’m talking heavy stuff that made me full. It’s important that people realize the volume effect of water-laden vegies with fibre. They make you feel full and they digest slowly, so you stay satiated longer. Also, I rarely ate dessert. On the other hand, I wasn’t shy about beer–usually one or two cans every single day. That was my dessert I guess.
So, while Cloud writes an excellent article, I would guess that his exercise isn’t very intense–it’s just long and painful. I can guarantee (almost) that if I were to work with him, put him on a program of deadlifting and work in some intervals and lactic acid producing (and thus growth hormone producing) calisthenics and kettlebells, he’s lose his gut–and even be able to slip in a piece of pie once in a while.