Fitness Nutrition/Weight Loss

Exercise and Weight Loss – There are No Facts

Fat Guy on Treadmill
Fat Guy on Treadmill

What should be perhaps the most highly controversial topic when it comes to losing weight is the role that exercise plays in it…or doesn’t. Here is the simple question:

Does exercise contribute to weight loss or maintenance?

The answer, based on the associated research so far, shows no link. Isn’t that amazing? Not that there is no link, but that we’ve been lied to all our lives about it? Everyone, including many low carb experts who should know better than to simply accept things at face value, seem to believe that working out is a contributor to weight loss. Or, at least, can be a contributor so long as calories are not increased along with the physical activity. But any knowledgeable low-carber should already know that it isn’t about the caloric intake – it’s what you eat, not how much. Eat bad foods (carbs) and you gain. Don’t eat them and you lose (or maintain, if you are in the enviable position of already being at your natural weight).

The Experts’ Take

So what do the credible experts say about this topic?

Let’s start with the late Dr. Atkins. He certainly said repeatedly that exercise was important. In his books, he dedicated chapters to it. In his New Diet Revolution he has a chapter titled, “Exercise: It’s Non-Negotiable”. I guess that summed up his stance, but here’s an excerpt anyway:

Atkins New Diet Revolution - Exercise: It's Non-Negotiable (excerpt)
Atkins New Diet Revolution - Exercise: It's Non-Negotiable (excerpt)

And, for what it’s worth (in my personal opinion, not much), The South Beach Guy insists on exercise as well.

What does the ‘meta-researcher’ (my term for him, since he does the research on the research : ), Gary Taubes, say about this subject? His analysis seems to match up with my personal experience in the matter:

For most of us, fear of flab is the reason we exercise, the motivation that drives us to the gym. It’s also why public-health authorities have taken to encouraging ever more exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle. If we’re fat or fatter than ideal, we work out. Burn calories. Expend energy. Still fat? Burn more. The dietary guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for instance, now recommend that we engage in up to 60 minutes daily of “moderate to vigorous intensity” physical activity just to maintain weight—that is, keep us from fattening further. Considering the ubiquity of the message, the hold it has on our lives, and the elegant simplicity of the notion—burn calories, lose weight—wouldn’t it be nice to believe it were true? The catch is that science suggests it’s not, and so the answer to all of the above quiz questions is “no.”

– Gary Taubes, “Does Exercise Really Matter?”, NY Times Mag 

Taubes goes on to sum it up nicely when he says, in reference to physical activity’s relation to weight, “there’s no reason to think that we will lose any significant amount of weight, and little reason to think we will prevent ourselves from gaining it.”

My Personal Experience

I started eating a strict, minimal carb (meaning I ate as few as I could get away with, unless they came from healthy low-carb vegetables) back in January, 2011. In approximately 4 months I lost about 40 pounds. I was bursting with energy, feeling great, and way more physically active – no longer was I watching television or surfing the internet for hours at a time. Instead, I was playing with my kids or doing work around the house. But the problem was, I had so much energy that I felt it was time to make the next leap and ‘supercharge’ my weight loss by exercising. I, like everyone else, figured it would be a sure-fire way to lose weight even faster. So I enthusiastically joined a local gym and proceeded to spend a minimum of 1.5 hours a day there doing plenty of cardio, along with some weight-lifting. The result? My weight loss slowed dramatically. My appetite? As Taubes theorizes in Why We Get Fat, my working out simply caused me to “work up an appetite”. I found I was hungry more often.

I continued to do a minimum of 40 minutes a day of cardio to varying degrees – from fast walking on the treadmill, to elliptical trainer, to taking the occasional ‘spinning’ class. For those of you that have never tried it, Spinning is no joke. At my gym, it’s an hour plus of sweating your ass off. Looking back, I recall I was the only guy in the noon-time classes – all the other ‘spinners’ were overweight women – and they all could ‘spin’ circles around me without breaking a sweat…but obviously it didn’t help with their weight loss.

In addition to the exercising slowing my weight loss, it also had another negative impact: I no longer was as energetic, outside of the gym, as I had been before I started exercising. No longer was I pacing around the house looking for physical activity – things to do that day, mowing the lawn, wrestling with the kids, etc. I was too tired from working out : (

Final Considerations

Don’t get me wrong: I like working out and will continue to be physically active. I just am no longer doing ‘routines’ or spending hours a week on cardio machines. I think it’s detrimental to my weight loss, and my scale and ever-tightening belt have proven that it is. The past month I’ve ditched the cardio (I still keep up with the weight training, but have scaled it back) and the pounds are coming off faster. Inches too. But I gotta say I kinda miss spending time in the cardio area at my gym. I’ve found that it’s actually fun when you’re not obese! That’s why the skinny people at the gym all look like they’re enjoying it, while the fat people look like they’ve been forced to attend. One reason I enjoyed it is that it gave me a chance to listen to tunes on my mp3 player, or podcasts. I think overall it’s good to exercise – it makes me feel good so long as I don’t over-do it like I was. Taubes makes it clear in his book, Why We Get Fat (which I highly recommend over all/any ‘diet’ books), that there are some very good reasons to exercise. But losing weight is not one of them. That’s generally been my experience.

Weight versus Shape (or Inches)

One key point I want to close with: there is a significant difference between weight and shape (or, if you prefer, inches). This is certain, and anaerobic activity certainly has proven to positively impact shape. In other words, a fat guy who is shaped like an apple but then loses weight will just be a smaller apple, with the fat in the same places, just to a lesser extent. Anaerobic activity builds muscle, which tones your body and makes you look better. So start lifting weights, or doing something that works for you in that area.

My Experience Not Typical Among Low Carb Community

Some searches on this topic of the low carb forums out there seems to show a lot of disagreement with my experience on this topic. Many low carb folks insist that they lost more weight due to their exercising. Who knows – although everyone has an opinion, and their own experiences to draw on, the science to prove one way or the other just isn’t there. Yet. So, in the words of the Jersey Shore youngins, “Do you.” (in normal speak, that means “Do what feels good to you.”).

What’s your experience with low carb and exercise been? Please leave a comment!

4 replies on “Exercise and Weight Loss – There are No Facts”

[…] Flash forward to five months after starting my low carb journey. I had long abandoned, soon after ‘induction’, The South Beach Diet. I’m not one for the rigidity of these diet books. And, after researching on my own the information on low carb diets, I knew I no longer needed to bother with any ‘diet’ plan. Just eat as few carbs as possible and I would lose weight. And I did. And during this time, as I proceeded to lose approximately 40 pounds in 5 months, I also noticed that my energy level increased on an almost daily basis. I felt wonderful. Had so much more energy to play with my kids, get household chores done, etc. And then it hit me: I should channel this energy into exercising/working out, figuring it would accelerate my weight loss. As I’ve reported already, in hindsight it had the reverse effect and actually decelerated my w… […]

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