You’ve been dedicated and committed, working out with gusto for weeks at the gym. You’ve even got the sweat and sore muscles to prove it. But, for some reason, those pesky numbers on the scale have refused to budge. (Or worse, the number you see has been creeping up).
If weight loss, at its most basic level, is a matter of calories in and calories out, it might be reasonable to assume it possible to burn off those extra calories in the gym, losing weight without making any diet modifications. Unfortunately, science has begun to show that you might want to examine this mindset a bit more skeptically.
While you may not want to cancel your gym membership just yet, the undeniable truth of weight loss is that exercise fails to compensate for a poor diet.
You may be of the notion that weight loss is all about calories in, calories out. Since exercise burns calories, it stands to reason that, all things being equal, exercise should result in weight loss. After all, if you burn more calories than you take in, you lose weight and burning a huge number of calories during exercise means the pounds should just melt off.
But that is simply not the case!
In reality the calories burned during exercise are not that many unless you are at the caliber of an elite, professional or Olympic athlete. You probably only burn a maximum of about 300 calories in 30 minutes. This calorie "deficit" is almost immediately wiped out by a post-workout smoothie or Paleo treat. To add to that, the calorie readouts on the exercise machines at your gym are notoriously inaccurate, making you think you are burning huge numbers of calories by using these devices.
Mounting evidence also suggests that exercise increases hunger and you wind up eating more in response to that hunger than you "burn up" doing the exercise that made you hungry in the first place.
However, exercise does have a relationship to weight. It is simply not as perfect a relationship as most would prefer as exercise alone is fairly useless for losing weight. Exercise can, however, support and maintain fat loss when part of a true healthy lifestyle.
A Paleo lifestyle does not differentiate diet and exercise into 2 separate camps – they exist together, you need both.
Exercise directly impacts dietary habits, meaning it will make choosing your Paleo foods easier and implementing your Paleo lifestyle more successfully. Without regular movement, abrupt changes in dietary habits, or long-term commitment to lifestyle choices are very difficult to sustain.
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How Exercise Supports Fat Loss
Exercise changes body composition, improves resting metabolic rate (the energy it takes to simply be) and alters food preferences. Sadly, these facts often go largely unnoticed when compared to sensationalized diet products and media promoted ‘quick fix’ solutions. Change through exercise over time is a much tougher sell and requires a longer-term commitment than a seven-day cleanse. Many folks also find making time for movement on a daily basis to be unreasonable or undoable, and find themselves looking elsewhere for an easier fix. A Paleo lifestyle promotes moving regularly and exercising often (conventionally or unconventionally), further supporting fat loss goals.
Exercise can provide significant hormonal and psychological benefits even with workouts like strength training that are not hugely calorically demanding. This requires an, understanding that fat loss is not simply a math equation of calories in vs calories out. The hormonal environment in your body, and whether your body is set up metabolically to store fat or to burn it play a much bigger role.
There are 3 hormones that are critical to fat loss success
- Thyroid Hormone
- Sex hormones (testosterone in men, and progesterone in women)
When kept in balance, these hormones have a large effect on metabolism and achieving and maintaining body composition.
Insulin is produced in the beta cells of the pancreas in response to elevated glucose levels in the blood. In small doses, insulin is very anabolic, but when insulin is secreted consistently over long periods of time, the ability to burn fat is impacted.
First, since the muscles are not getting fed, they signal the brain telling it you are hungry, especially for sugar since it is the fastest thing to bring energy levels up. Next it increases inflammation systemically which then increases cortisol. Lastly, when glucose levels rise, your body tries really hard to do anything it can to lower it so it shifts fuel utilization away from fat-burning to carbohydrate (glucose)-burning.
Since insulin balance and blood glucose regulation go hand-in-hand, and elevated blood glucose slows down fat utilization, maintaining a healthy insulin balance is important for the metabolism. Exercise is one of the best ways to restore insulin sensitivity. Improved insulin sensitivity has further fat loss benefits including
- Fewer blood sugar highs and lows.
- Greater ability to burn calories for energy instead of storing them as fat.
- Better regulation of appetite-controlling hormones, like leptin.
Thyroid hormones are the main metabolic hormone in the body. They are produced by the thyroid gland, located in the throat, in response to thyroid stimulating hormone that comes from the pituitary gland. However, the initial hormone produced by the thyroid, thyroxine4 (T4), is metabolically inactive. It must be converted into T3 in order to affect your metabolism.
Exercise intensity, especially in terms of cardiovascular exercise, has a profound effect on the thyroid hormones. and can improve both thyroid balance and function. This in turn supports fat loss.
Testosterone and progesterone are the two main hormones in males and females, respectively. In males, if testosterone levels fall, it causes a loss of energy, limited ability to build and maintain muscle mass, and a loss in libido. In women, lowered progesterone production causes an imbalance in the estrogen to progesterone ratio resulting in irregular menstrual cycles, an increased risk for PCOS, pre-menopausal symptoms, and an increase of fat storage around the hips and triceps.
High intensity resistance training has been shown to have the most beneficial effect on testosterone in men and cardio training and resistance training at a moderate intensity has shown similar results on the sex hormones in women.
Exercise simply makes most people feel good and is one of the best tools for improving mental health. It gives you more energy, is an effective stress management tool and can support treating depression.
Having more energy makes it easier to maintain healthy behaviors even when they are challenging or not convenient. More energy means making healthy choices even when it takes effort (and to be honest, often it does!) is easier to do and you become more successful at it.
Exercise has also been shown to reduce sugar cravings. In a world where treats and processed food temptations abound, reducing the cravings or desires for sweets can help you maintain your Paleo lifestyle and nutrition goals.
There is a huge benefit in being around other people who care about their health. Simply being part of a gym community, running club, or other athletic group can help you stay motivated to maintain all your Paleo lifestyle choices and move further towards your fat loss goals. Sharing social connection with like-minded people make a healthy lifestyle more enjoyable to live.
A Better Weight Loss Strategy:
Revamp Your Diet
Place the focus on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, particularly sugars (even the Paleo friendly ones) and starches like those in many root vegetables, increase levels of insulin - your ‘fat storage’ hormone. This can make it incredibly challenging to lose body fat. Eat more protein and fat, get your carbs from above-the-ground vegetables and low sugar fruits.
Exercise smartly too. Increase the intensity and shorten the time. Circuit and interval training are the modalities that have trainers and exercise physiologists the most excited when it comes to both health benefits and fat burning. Pay attention, they are right!
Recognize that fitness and six-pack abs are not the same thing. Exercise for fitness and for health, and to maintain your gains. Expecting your morning walk to transform your body, especially if you fail to take serious aim at your diet is going to leave you disappointed.
No matter your weight or fitness goals, remember that the health benefits of a well formulated Paleo diet and exercise regime go far beyond a number on the scale. Eating a nutrient dense diet and incorporating exercise along with some other tenets of a Paleo lifestyle can improve your health even if you don’t lose a single pound.