Let’s be honest. There are few things more terrible than starting to exercise after it’s been awhile. We all have our golden days when we were in good or better shape, so it can feel daunting trying to get back when it feels like so much has been lost (or gained) since then.
Nutrition Alone Isn’t Going To Get the Job Done
I understand the desire to take this journey slow and just focus on nutrition. Many people out there will say things like eating well is 80% of the results. It is true that exercise is completely pointless if you’re not eating well. However it is untrue that nutrition alone can lead to quicker weight loss. This is due to something known as adaptive thermogenesis where the body makes itself become more efficient when fat stores are continually used for energy. The result is increased difficulty with losing more weight and/or maintaining the lower weight. In the biz this is called “plateuing.”
One study examined this by measuring and recording the heart rate of overweight people before and after they were given atropine to speed up their heart rate and again after they were given esmolol to slow down their heart rate. These same people then lost 10% of their body weight and their heart rates were measured again after receiving the same drugs. The results showed that after losing the weight, heart rate returned to normal more quickly after it had been increased and more slowly after it had been decreased . Essentially, as you exercise your body gets better and better at controlling your heart rate and an elevated heart rate is necessary to burn fat.
Another study built on this by recording the changes in RMR over several months of weight loss and found significant decreases in RMR as more weight was lost .
Depressing yes? If only food is modified then your body will literally start fighting you to retain its mass after awhile. However, this is where exercise comes in. Exercise of any kind requires energy whether your body wants to use it or not.
Why Does Exercise Burn Fat:
I think a lot of us can confidently say we know that exercising is “good for you” or helps you lose weight. Others may be able to rattle off some exercises or routines but if I were to ask why these are helpful, I think a lot fewer people would feel comfortable explaining the science behind it. As with any endeavor, knowing why you’re doing something will yield better results down the line than simply being told what to do. It’s the old teach a man to fish metaphor.
The benefits of exercise are two-fold. The first benefit is that by exercising you are forcing the body to spend more energy to fuel the activities. This energy that is used exists in a hierarchy of availability within our bodies.
For most activities, strenuous or otherwise, the body uses sugar from carbohydrates or sugar that have been consumed for energy. If these are unavailable (because, for example, you are strategically limiting sugar and carbohydrates) it uses short term stores of sugar called glycogen which live in the liver (the liver can hold up to 100 grams of glycogen). Once glycogen is exhausted, it burns fat for energy.
The second benefit is that after exercise the body has to get back to its baseline for oxygen exchange, temperature, and begin repairing muscle tissue that was damaged during the workout. All of this requires energy and calories to do. Meaning that even after you finish exercising, your body will continue a few more calories than it normally does just to repair — meanwhile you’re not exercising anymore. I mentioned this “afterburn effect” or EPOC earlier and like I said it’s not a significant increase in metabolism, but it’s an increase all the same.
How To Prepare For Exercise: Warm Ups & Stretches:
You should always warm before exercise and there are specific movements that work great to prepare the body for intense activity and to help ensure that you do not get injured during that intense activity. The importance of this cannot be overstated.
Fasted Workouts: Getting More Bang For Your Buck
Another great tactic for creating EPOC is exercising in the fasted state — meaning you eat very little or nothing at all before exercising. Many people find this incredibly convenient since exercise can be performed first thing in the morning after waking up without having to wait to eat and digest.
Working out in the fasted state forces your body to expend calories it actually hasn’t received yet to give you energy while exercising. Then once the EPOC threshold is reached, the resting metabolism is increased as the body tries to re-normalize and repair — all without having received any calories.
There is of course a delicate balance to this. One may assume that if eating nothing before a workout is good, eating nothing after is better. And that eating nothing the day before would be even better. These are both dead wrong. If done habitually either of these things will have negative effects on weight loss and on performance during exercise. If our body hasn’t received any carbohydrates or food in a while it may burn fat but it will also start “breaking down protein — your muscles’ building blocks — for fuel” which may result in muscle loss and slowing the metabolism drastically . This, of course, is far from ideal if the goal is to lose weight and make the body spend more energy.
Combining Fasting, Eating, & Exercise:
- The night before a workout make sure the last meal consumed contains a decent amount of carbohydrates. Some bread for example works just fine.
- Get up in the morning and drink a big glass of water, have a cup of coffee, and drink a small protein shake. 1 scoop of powder. No fruit or other additions.
- Dynamic Stretches
- Static Stretches
- Eat breakfast 1-2 hours after finishing exercise. Make sure there’s some carbohydrates (e.g. 1-2 pieces of toast) to refuel. Otherwise protein that could have helped build muscle might be used to recharge the body
Two Vital Exercise Components:
Work Hard, Not Long: When looking at fat loss and exercise, the goal is intensity not duration. More than anything you want to keep your heart rate up. Resting is fine, but the gym is for working not taking selfies :).
Progressive Overload: To build muscle and to continue challenging your body to use more energy you want to make the exercises you’re doing steadily more difficult. You can do that by doing more sets, more reps, or more weight, or more time. But if you lift 25 lbs 10 times, in two weeks you should try to lift it more times or lift a heavier weight. This is key!
For someone who is not accustomed to daily activity this may sound daunting. But it works. It won’t be easy. But it works. In fact one of the most common pieces of advice in weight loss success stories is to start slow and make small goals. Whether that is eating better or doing something active everyday or both. There are people who choose to focus on diet and see results in 3-4 years. Others start with diet and graduate to small amounts of exercise that they build on and see results in 6-12 months. It’s worth noting the difference between those who added exercise and those who didn’t regarding the time it took to lose 100 lbs or more.
- Gibney, Michael et al. Introduction to Human Nutrition 2nd Edition. Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.