Stop Using Exercise to Lose Weight

On the surface it seems so simple. It’s the first law of thermodynamics after all. Fat is stored energy, right? So if I burn more energy than I consume, you’ll burn fat and thus lose weight, right? Well… unfortunately, no it’s not that easy.

We need to get rid of the “Calories In vs. Calories Out Hypothesis.” You simply cannot exercise bodyfat away. Think of it this way: we see two restuarants. One of which is busy and the other is empty. If you asked me, “Why is one more popular than the other?” And I responded, “Well that one has more people in it” you’d probably find that an insufficient answer. Well when you explain excess body fat as “one body is more calorically popular than the other” you’re using the same rationale. How many lean people do you know that don’t exercise at all? How many overweight people do you know that exercise all the time? It’s far too simplistic to just hope to “burn off” your excess calories.

I know it sounds crazy but there is literally no scientific evidence to prove the seemingly obvious connection that exercise helps with weight loss. As science writer Gary Taubes explains, “The one thing that might be said with certainty about exercise is that it tends to make us hungry. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. Burn more calories and the odds are very good that we’ll consume more as well.” We are wired for homeostasis. As anyone who is trying to make a new habit permanent can attest, our body hates change. When we begin exercising, we might notice a slight change, but over a certain amount of time our caloric balance shifts back toward homeostasis; in other words, we plateau.

Now let me be clear, I am not telling you to NOT exercise. Improving muscle tone, bone density, cardiovascular efficiency and the myriad benefits of exercise are very very well documented. I’m just saying that bodyfat loss tends not to be one of them. Now can you exercise and lose bodyfat? Absolutely. But that leads us to a correlation vs. causation problem. Are lean people lean because they exercise? Or do lean people just gravitate toward exercise? This fundamental misunderstanding of correlation and causation has led us to the unbeliveable statistic that there are now more obese people in the world than malnourished. So how then do we lose unwanted bodyfat? Well, if you’ve picked up anything from this piece unfortunately the answer is: it’s complicated. But here are a few things YOU MUST consider if body composition changes are your goal.

Lifestyle factors. I think stress is the largest problem we face. Even if indirectly, being stressed all day erodes our ability to make good choices. When you’ve had a long day it’s always easier go with the “easy” choice and not the “best” choice. d
Psychology. I definitely don’t want to go down this rabbit hole but let’s be honest; most people know what is good for them. It’s pretty rare in this day and age that people don’t know things like “Nutella is NOT a health food.” We know that fish and veggies are better than pizza, we know we want to lose weight, then why do we keep eating pizza?
The other 99%. How much are you sleeping? Are you drinking enough water? Do you take a fish oil? Do you work on your mental health like meditating and non television related relaxation?

The crappy short answer is: body fat loss is complicated. It’s a tangled web of factors and understanding that, avoiding the “quick fix” and being real is the most important step towards actualizing it.