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How Spending More Time Working Out Can Actually Trigger Fat Storage

Yes, you read that right, it’s not a typo. I know what you’re thinking…come on Shane how could someone gain fat by spending more time exercising? Believe it or not this can happen, in fact it’s quite common among women who combine excessive cardiovascular exericse with a low calorie diet.

I’ve witnessed this several times with training and consulting clients. Mind you many of these individuals were meticulous with their nutrition tracking and didn’t deviate more than 100-200 calories daily over a two week period, but yet experienced body fat increases!

I can remember the first time I witnessed this I had to literally pause for a second to gather my thoughts before responding to my client (who was surprised needless to say that she had increased body fat composition).

I’ll admit that initially in my mind I was saying to myself something along the lines of “what in the world?”

How could she have gained fat while her calories basically stayed the same? And the only thing that changed in her routine was that she had increased the duration of her cardio workouts.

Think about this…

Incoming calories staying basically the same, macronutrients (carbs, protein, fat) basically staying the same, and caloric expenditure increasing due to the extra cardio.

But yet body fat increases. Huh?

At a point early on in my career I might have done like a lot of coaches do and write it off as the client “failing to disclose” their real food intake. You know….the not reporting that chocolate fudge sundae, bag of M&M’s or whatever.

It’s easy to assume that the body fat increases MUST be the result of excess calories consumed at some point. You fitness coaches who are reading this post don’t automatically jump to this conclusion. Dig deeper, investigate, go the extra mile.

There’s a very good explanation for why and how this happens. It can be summed up in two words…metabolic slowdown.

More after the jump…

My objective with today’s post is to explain to you in as simple of terms as possible just exactly how it’s possible to stay stuck in a fat loss plateau (and yes even gain fat) while increasing exercise duration and/or frequency.

It’s testimony to the fact that more is NOT always better, especially when it comes to exercise.

I’ll try to simultaneously provide some more detail for those who are really interested in the physiology and exercise science behind everything.

On a side note, it’s a strange coincidence that I had this post scheduled to write today (as I plan out my posts often times weeks in advance), when the consulting client I met with yesterday morning was experiencing this exact thing.

Here was her situation, again this is not that uncommon.

Last year, before we met, she had started a strict regiment of working out excessively (2 hours or more a day- 6 days a week) combined with a clean diet.

Well long story short, not surprisingly she lost quite a bit of weight over a few months time. Then she took a break from her grueling training regiment to go on her honeymoon…and what do you think happened?

Of course the weight started coming back on. On the surface it would be easy to justify this with the indulgences and higher calorie meals which would’ve been consumed on the honeymoon.

But regardless it’s likely her body would have started storing fat the moment she took a break, and at the first available opportunity.  Why?

It’s called self-preservation, the body being programmed, literally hard wired, to first and foremost SURVIVE.

When the perceived threat of starvation is over (in this case not a real famine, but self-induced restriction from excessive caloric expenditure from the exercise and not enough coming in), the body naturally and instinctively stores fat along with muscle glycogen.

Chance are you’re probably already aware of the connection between excessive caloric deficits and self-preservation mechanisms being triggered in what the body senses as “starvation mode.”

Let’s continue on with her story as this is where things get interesting…

So the honeymoon’s over and it’s time to get back at it with the long-duration workouts done six times a week (sometimes more than once a day), but a strange thing happens this time…

The weight doesn’t come off. So what gives?

Why did the excessive exercise and caloric deficits work to produce weight loss initially, but then all of a sudden stall out and eventually even contribute to weight gain?

There’s a gold nugget tip in here so pay attention as this rarely gets talked about. I believe it’s one of the biggest reasons women in particular make this same mistake over and over.

What worked at one point in time to create a change in your body composition won’t necessarily work again now.

Let that sink in. There is NO one formula that will work the same way every time, at every phase and age of your life.

Understand this point as it’s important…

When you have MORE fat to lose proportionately in your body (15, 30, 40, 50 pounds or more) you can get away with some things you won’t be able to later when you’re closer to your body’s natural weight set point (yeah, like starving yourself and doing lots of cardio).

The reason is because you’ll burn off quite a bit of adipose tissue (fat) before you begin breaking down lean muscle tissue for energy.

Another way to look at this is you won’t experience such a quick drop in metabolic rate (as is more likely to happen when you’re closer to your bodyweight set point). This is caused by thyroid hormone attenuation that is a direct result of lean muscle loss (among other factors).

So does that make sense? The more fat you have to lose, the less likely you are to lose a lot of lean muscle tissue during restrictive states and caloric deficits.

But the natural instinct for most people is to do MORE of what they did before. You get down to that last 10-15 pounds of body fat or less and chances are it’s NOT coming off with more exercise and/or a further restriction in calories.

In fact, as you’re seeing this becomes extremely counter-productive.

The hardest part I have as a coach is to convince a client in a situation like this that they’ll see improvements in their body composition by working out less and eating more.

Notice I said working out “less,” but there was nothing in there about it being easy.

I had come across this quote somewhere years ago and it’s always stuck with me.

“You can workout hard, or you can workout long, but you can’t do both!”

Think about that for a second. It’s the gospel truth. The problem is we’ve got a lot of misconceptions and false beliefs that come from magazines, TV, etc about fitness and weight loss.

For example people watch the Biggest Loser on TV and see these people dropping significant amounts of weight on a weekly basis by being drilled into the ground by personal trainers and following a strict diet.

So naturally, the impression is what you need to do is a LOT of exercise and dieting. While this may work for someone over 300 pounds, it’s definitely not a good idea for someone trying to lose that last 10-15 pounds.

When I say the strategy of insane amounts of exercise and dieting “works” for really overweight individuals, that’s obvious, but it’s not the only way and certainly not the best way.

Mark my words, at some point we’re probably going to see one of these contestants have a heart attack or stroke and die right there on the set. But don’t get me started on that subject.

Anyways, back to why the body (when close to your ideal weight) will seek to store fat when subjected to excessive exercise and caloric deficits.

Once again this is all a matter of hormonal balances.

It’s not surprising that middle age adults especially, tend to see any attempts to use excessive exercise and caloric deficits backfire, due to the fact they’re experiencing normal hormonal decreases associated with aging.

Excessive exercise and caloric deficits mean one thing to your body….STRESS!

And how does the body respond to stress? Well that depends on whether it’s short-term or more chronic in nature.

Short-term stress and stressors are a good thing, the problems start to occur when the body is under chronic stress. This disrupts the entire endocrine system and just about every function of the body, including impairing your immunity.

So let’s take a look at some of the main hormones that play a part in impacting body composition depending on the variables.

- Cortisol
- Testosterone
- IGF-1
- Growth Hormone
- Thyroid Hormone

I’m going to try to keep this simple and to the point. There could be an entire conversation on each one, perhaps another day.

Here’s the deal. The body naturally goes through two distinct phases of breaking things down (catabolic state) and building things back up (anabolic state).

Contrary to what you might have heard or read, BOTH phases are valuable and play a beneficial role. There just needs to be a balance, go figure.

The problem with the excessive exercise and caloric deficit combination is that it leads to an extended and enhanced catabolic state in the body. In other words your adrenal glands are being worked over-time to deal with the stress. The body is never fully recovering.

Lean muscle starts getting broken down and a host of bad things happen.

It’s valuable to understand that the adrenal glands are one of the most important glands in the body. The health and function of the adrenals is going to have a lot of influence on your overall health and body composition.

The reason is they’re in an axis with a LOT of other hormones.

Here’s a short look at what happens when the adrenals start dumping more and more cortisol into the bloodstream to deal with chronic stress.

Elevated cortisol levels from prolonged exercise and/or caloric deficits

- Inhibits muscle protein synthesis (MPS)

- Increases muscle protein breakdown (MPB)

- Triggers the conversion of amino acids to glucose when there’s been depletion of stored glycogen through a process called gluconeogenesis. If protein is not available lean muscle tissue can become the source of protein (not good).

-  Accelerates the mobilization and use of fat for energy (to a point- then it does the reverse)

- Cortisol is an antagonist to growth hormone. When cortisol levels are high the effects of growth hormone on adipose tissue lipolysis (fat burning) is diminished.

- Elevated cortisol levels work to impair conversion of T4 to T3 and diminish thyroid hormone production. Thus lowering metabolism.

It’s important to understand that cortisol secretion in relation to exercise is directly tied into two factors.

1) Amount of available carbohydrate to fuel activity. When blood sugars level drop dramatically, the adrenals start secreting glucocorticoids to work on getting energy elsewhere. Long duration exercise and “low carb” doesn’t mix.

2) Duration of physical activity, type, and intensity.

Just know that the longer you exercise, especially when in a caloric/carbohydrate deficit, the more cortisol will be released.

This is why traditional “cardio” done by women in caloric deficits can produce such diminished returns. All their doing is…raising cortisol levels and thereby:

- decreasing thyroid hormone production (in other words creating a metabolism down-regulation)
- negatively impacting testosterone levels
- lowering growth hormone secretion

In other words breaking themselves down and making it easier to STORE fat instead of burning it.

The same thing happens to the guys, but the difference is men have more testosterone to buffer some of the negative effects of cortisol. Make no mistakes though, they’ll likewise struggle with lean muscle development and reducing body fat.

So you understand now how all these hormonal shifts can work against you. The exact opposite can be true though if you reverse the paradigm.

My advice to anyone who’s stuck in a plateau, regardless of how much they exercise and restrict calories…


Ok, and then do something drastically different.

Forget about doing hours after hours of cardio (think you’re going to gain weight if you give up all the calorie burning cardio, ask yourself how well it’s working for you now).

Stop it, just stop it.

Instead I want you to focus on the MUSCLE. That’s right I want you to shift focus from all that cardio to doing more strength training.

If you’re doing strength training 1-2 times a week and cardio 4-5 times a week, flip it. That’s right, do strength training 4-5 times a week and some form of interval training for your cardio 1-2 times a week.

But here’s the thing, your workouts are to be abbreviated ( in other words, short in duration). I’m talking 30-45 minutes top. Heck even 15-20 minutes of burst training is going to be more productive than an hour or more of these marathon type workouts.

Remember the workouts are short, but they’re only effective if you WORK HARD.

The short-duration, high intensity burst training or metabolic resistance style workouts are working much differently than long-duration aerobic based cardio on a hormonal level. Testosterone, growth hormone, adrenaline, nor-adrenaline, etc, is being increased and not decreased.

A few other important pieces to the puzzle here. You’re going to use supportive nutrition, not restrictive nutrition, yes this means you need to eat to fuel your workouts and keep your metabolism stoked.

You’re going to need adequate rest and recovery. Get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Work on mediating stress in your life (the stress should come from your 30 minute workout). Get after it when you do exercise, but make it short and sweet.

Doesn’t have to be 4-5 times a week of strength training. You could do 2-3 days of strength training and mix it up with some yoga on other days and 1-2 times of week of interval training, etc. There are lots of options here, but the big picture is we’re NOT doing hours upon hours of cardio and starving ourselves.

Alright, I’ve got to wrap this up for now. I’ll dig more into this another day, this post is getting pretty long. If you have any questions or if I can be of assistance at all feel free to leave your comments below.

Take care- S

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, author, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Personal Training Studios.

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