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Why Exercise Alone Does Little To Promote Fat Loss

There’s a saying that frequently gets posted in our gym which reads, “You can’t out-exercise a bad diet.”

This serves as a reminder for all of our clients that while the workouts are an essential component in the equation for a body transformation, what they do outside of the gym will be even more important.

Exercise and working out, regardless of the type or duration, is not a magic bullet. Generally speaking no matter how hard you train or for how long (within reason), there will be minimal changes in body fat loss unless you make other lifestyle and diet changes.

I say “within reason” as it is hypothetically possible to see decreases in body fat without much of a change in your diet, but it would require excessive amounts of exercise (hour or more per day), which isn’t feasible or practical for most working adults.

And for that matter this wouldn’t be recommended as excessive exercise opens up the door to a whole host of other problems, especially when the individual has a somewhat stressful and hectic lifestyle.

It’s been my experience that most folks tend to far overestimate the number of calories expended during exercise, right along with the impact it will have on their ability to lose fat.

There are also those who far overestimate the impact on fat loss from doing lots and lots of aerobic exercise while significantly restricting calories.

In short, doing any amount of exercise without changing the diet AND doing lots of cardio while significantly restricting calories; both will produce poor results with fat loss in the long run.

More after the jump…

The truth on calories burned during exercise…

It’s a common trend these days for promoters of various workout routines to hype up the number of calories burned during their workouts. There’s even a fitness franchise which promotes a certain number of calories which can be burned in their workouts included right in the name of the business.

A lot of this is marketing hype so let me set the record straight right here and now.

Here’ what we know from credible research in exercise science:

During aerobic exercise, caloric expenditure averages about 5 calories/minute for low intensities and increases to approximately 10 calories/minute for moderate to high intensities.

Really high intensity levels can push the needle to upwards of 15 calories/minute, but this will be difficult to sustain for any significant amount of time (typically less than 1-2 minutes for even a trained individual).

Weight training will average somewhere around 7-10 calories/minute expended with vigorous effort.

The intensity of the exercise has far greater impact on fat loss than the duration of exercise, for a host of reasons which extend outside of the scope of this discussion.

There’s also the matter of additional calorie expenditure after exercise referred to as “Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption” (EPOC), which we won’t get into a lot of detail now.

I just wanted you to see that workouts which claim to produce in excess of more than 600 calories burned during a workout are likely exaggerated.

I don’t want you to get overly hung up on the number of calories burned during your workouts anyways. What’s far more important is the frequency of your workouts, what activities you do, and what you do with your diet.

The workouts themselves are only one piece of the puzzle.

Here’s an example of estimated fat loss with exercise if NO changes were made in calorie intake:

Intensity Cal/min Time Frequency Total cal/wk Estimated fat loss/month
Low 5 60 minutes 3 / week 900 1 lb
Low 5 60 minutes 5 / week 1500 1.7 lb
Mod/High 10 60 minutes 3 / week 1800 2 lb
Mod/High 10 60 minutes 5 / week 3000 3.5 lb

As you can see even with lots of exercise, without changes in your diet there’s not much to expect in the way of fat loss.

And there’s certainly no reason you have to workout for 60 minutes 5 times a week if fat loss is your goal anyways.

There continues to be the misconception among a lot of folks that “more exercise is better” when it comes to fat loss. While this may be somewhat true with additional cardio, but it’s only so up to a point.

The benefit of additional aerobic exercise will depend on the individual’s needs as well and how much body fat they have to lose.

If anything I see women especially looking to do too much cardio (while cutting calories) when what they should be doing is more weight training and less calorie cutting.

Resistance training has a greater influence on body composition changes overall for middle age men and women than cardio exercise. This may be surprising to some as weight training doesn’t burn nearly the number of calories during the exercise session compared to doing cardio.

But remember, it’s not all about calories burned during the workout.

The reason that resistance training has more impact (albeit with less caloric expenditure during the workout) has to do with a host of factors including the following:

- increased lean muscle development improving metabolic rate.

- hormonal responses associated with weight training (especially with burst training). Impact on testosterone, growth hormone, and catecholamines such as adrenaline and nor-adrenaline for example.

- EPOC, and energy utilization post-workout. High intensity weight training will result in more calories being burned after the workout (up to 24-36 hours) compared to aerobic exercise. Greater utilization of fats for energy production will also occur.

Truth be told the science isn’t crystal clear on exactly why resistance training tends to have a more pronounced impact on body composition changes. I can only tell you from personal experience this tends to be true.

Adding more lean muscle for example doesn’t produce huge shifts in a person’s resting metabolic rate. It’ll raise it some, but not a ton, certainly not enough to validate significant body fat losses. I believe it’s more of a combination of factors, some of which aren’t fully understood.

That’s why while we definitely want to look at the science, it’s a good idea not to get caught up in endless debates regarding theory. It’s all about what tends to work best in the real world.

How often do I need to exercise to see some changes in body fat?

This is an important question, and one that frequently gets brought up with my personal training clients. It appears that the frequency of exercise plays a big role here. Generally speaking you’d be better off doing even short 15-20 workouts 5 x week than 1-2 workouts a week regardless of their duration.

Workouts that have the potential to burn even 500 calories per session done 2 x week (total of 1000 calories expended), tend NOT to cause the same fat loss as burning 300 calories per session 3 x week (total of 900 calories expended).

Bare minimum you’ll want to exercise 3 x week (preferably more) to see much in the way of body fat changes. I try to make sure that my clients who are doing personal training 2 x week understand this so the expectations are clear.

One simply shouldn’t expect much in the way of fat loss if all the exercise they’re doing is (2) thirty minute sessions per week. That’s a grand total of only 60 minutes of physical activity for the week. Doesn’t matter if these are the best workouts in the world, it’s not going to be enough to swing big doors with fat loss.

In an ideal scenario for body composition changes, resistance training of some fashion would be completed 3 x week and additional aerobic exercise completed not only on those days, but also another 2 x week on days when no resistance training is being completed.

Here’s an example schedule:

Monday: 30 minutes of resistance training / 20-40 minutes of aerobic exercise
Tuesday: 20-40 minutes of aerobic exercise
Wednesday: 30 minutes of resistance training / 20-40 minutes of aerobic exercise
Thursday: 20-40 minutes of aerboic exercise
Friday: 30 minutes of resistance training / 20-40 minutes of aerobic exercise
Saturday: Off /or make up day
Sunday: Off/ or make up day

Again, none of this is set in stone and there’s lot of variables here. Even 15-20 minutes of ANY exercise completed 5 x week would be more beneficial (when combined with dietary changes) than working out 1-2 x week regardless of the type or duration.

Generally speaking there’s also a reduction in the time required for workouts as the individual’s level of conditioning improves. As you get in better shape you’ll be able to work at higher intensities and therefore with shorter durations.

For example, doing sprints (intervals) on your off-days 2 x week for only 20 minutes would likely produce better fat loss than low intensity aerobic work for even 45-60 minutes. But then again you’d need to be at a level of conditioning to safely and effectively perform high-intensity/short duration interval training.

In short, you’ll need to spend more time conditioning and preparing your body in the beginning. I just want you to see that doing those 45-60 minute routine on the elliptical, stair-climber, etc, several times a week may not necessarily produce the results you desire. And again this will be regardless of how many calories you burn, how much you sweat, etc.

You’re better off hitting the weights a few times a week and then throwing in some cardio as time permits.

Ladies, pay special attention here…

Resistance training alone combined with a slight calorie restriction causes greater body fat loss than doing lots of cardio on significant calorie restriction.

Think along the lines of restricting somewhere around 500 calories from your diet, and not 1000 calories or more. A caloric deficit of 1000 calories or more (from diet restriction or a combination of diet and exercise expenditure) will invariably slow metabolism if done for longer than a few days.

This is very important to understand.

The value of 1000 calories per day is somewhat of a maximum threshold for fat loss.

If you’re regularly in deficit 1000 calories or more from your maintenance calories you’ll experience metabolic slowdown. Further increases in caloric expenditure (doing more cardio or further cutting calories from the diet) will only result in fat loss coming to a screeching halt.

Remember this value of 1000 calories per day as a short-term maximum threshold for fat loss, includes caloric restriction from the diet AND exercise expenditure. This means that if 500 calories per day were removed from the diet, no more than 500 calories should be expended with exercise.

Again, these aren’t numbers you’re required to hit for fat loss to occur, it’s just recommended not to go OVER that threshold value. Doing so will only result in hormonal shifts and metabolism down regulation.

This leaves you with a couple of options.

If you want to really ramp up the exercise and dieting for short periods of time (less than 5 days) you’ll need to “re-feed” and have a day where calories are brought back up to above maintenance levels. This is needed to reset the metabolism and avoid metabolic slowdown.

You’ll see this with various carb cycling or rotation type diets. These can be highly effective fat loss strategies when done properly, but they’re not necessary or for that matter the best option for everyone.

The second option would be to slightly reduce calories (no more than 500 calories from the diet) and combine with 3-4 days of resistance training with some moderate amounts of aerobic exercise mixed in.

Again the objective is to change body composition by adding more lean muscle, thereby improving metabolic rate, and then letting the diet and the more modest amounts of aerobic exercise stimulate fat loss.

Bottom line…

The big take-a-way from this discussion is as follows:

Resistance training coupled with a slight decrease in energy balance (from diet and exercise) is the key to fat loss for middle age adults. The inclusion of aerobic exercise can increase fat loss to a point, so long as total caloric expenditure isn’t excessive.

In other words, more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to cardio.

Frequency also seems to be a very important variable with regular exercise sessions being more effective than a handful of longer workouts done during the week.

If you only have 20-30 minutes day, you’re better off committing to that than trying to cut out an hour or more 1-2 x week. It doesn’t matter if those 1-2 workouts a week are the “mega fat blasting extreme hardcore Tabata bootcamp” or whatever.

More is better when it comes to the frequency, not the duration, calories expended, etc, with any given workout.

Also instead of extreme dieting, look to eat clean and just create a slight deficit. Keep your protein levels up, but bring down calories slightly from carb consumption. Let your body build lean muscle without sabotaging your metabolism and you’ll see things start to look different in the mirror and with how your clothes fit.

Give it time and be patient, it won’t happen overnight. Slow and steady is the course.

If you’re currently doing tons of exercise but not seeing much of a change in body fat loss, it’s time to alter course. Perhaps you’re in too much of a caloric deficit, or maybe you could benefit from doing more resistance training and less cardio,

Regardless, something needs to change. Doing more of the same when it’s not working is like bashing your head against the wall. Why not try another way? You may just find you’ll start seeing better results without feeling hungry all the time and spending all those hours on the treadmill.

If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them below. Always happy to help in any way I can.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides fitness consulting in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation. See our success stories from numerous Lowcountry residents then sign up for a no-obligations consultation today.

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Category: Fat Loss.