By Matt Stone
Does exercise work for weight loss? This is an age-old question in health circles. I have thought about and studied the general effectiveness of exercise for weight loss and general weight regulation for an eternity it seems.
We are undeniably conditioned to believe that exercise is a powerful tool for weight loss. By burning lots of calories and getting into better shape, it’s assumed to be a foolproof way to shed some pounds and improve our health. Is it?
I think I’ve experienced more cognitive dissonance and inner turmoil over this topic than just about any other. My brain is a crowded mess of opposing thoughts, viewpoints, research, and personal experience over the matter. But this will be a frequent topic over the coming months, as I have word that Ari Whitten will be authoring a book about a concept known as “caloric flux,” which basically means to lose weight by increasing your physical activity without a reduction in calorie consumption. It should be interesting. Might as well start the discussion now.
Personally, the largest weight loss episodes I’ve ever experienced in my life all came while in this coveted state of caloric flux. The leanest I’ve ever gotten in my life (sub 5% bodyfat) was achieved at just under 3,000 calories per day. The second leanest I’ve ever been (probably around 7-8% bodyfat) happened while ingesting well over 4,000 calories per day. How did I lose fat down to 6-pack abs levels of leanness eating so much? Hiking. Plain and simple. Usually 4-8 hours per day, 6 days per week, or thereabouts, for entire summers.
So it must work right?
Well, every time I entered a state of caloric flux, I had a substantial drop in resting body temperature (about 2 degrees F) with other signs of a reduced metabolic rate. Then, when I stopped exercising so much at the end of the summer, I experienced a great deal of fatigue and rebound hunger, leading to a quick replenishment of my fat stores with usually 5-10 pounds of extra blubber compared to where I was at during the spring. I experienced this on multiple diets/eating regimens ranging from several quarts of milk and a couple pounds of meat per day to strict vegetarianism. Result was the same every time, although I maintained a lot more muscle on the higher-protein diet (and also felt A LOT shittier while out on the trail, hiking at only a fraction of my normal, fully-carbed pace).
Even more alarming, the two summers that I’ve hiked a lot in my mid-30’s (as opposed to my 20’s) resulted in not 5-10, but 15 pounds of additional weight gain! In fact, I could make a nearly irrefutable case that losing weight in a state of caloric flux has been the single biggest contributor to the lifetime, cumulative fat gain I’ve experienced. You could blame it on the calorie-dense foods that I pigged out on each fall, but the reality is that “fattening” food has never been fattening to me unless I had preceded the consumption of this supposed-fattening food with a strict diet or an unsustainable exercise regimen. And I mean that. I bought $80 of girl scout cookies this year, am down to four boxes, and my weight hasn’t changed an ounce since I ordered them a couple months ago. My weight hasn’t changed in over a year actually, except during a brief -10 followed by +15 eating too much fruit.
So I’d say that exercise is a great way to lose body fat. I’ve yet to gain fat on a 50-mile backpacking trip. But at the same time, using exercise as a tool to lose fat is fraught with danger, as intermittent exercise habits can, in my experience and in others that I’ve witnessed, lead to tremendous fat gain just like yo-yo dieting. I listed it in my summary of how we get fat.
So if exercise has been fattening for me, I should just avoid it?
Oops. That’s a problem, too. I deteriorate in so many ways when I reduce my physical activity down to next to nothing. I may not gain fat being sedentary, but I get to the point where I can’t walk a mile without my feet getting sore or even cook a meal in the kitchen without the muscles in my back tightening up so bad I can barely stand upright. I become extremely injury-prone, and my breathing also seems to suffer. Plus, it just sucks to not be physically fit. To not be able to do stuff. It’s miserable.
Well then, the obvious answer is to exercise more moderately. 4-8 hours a day of strenuous hiking is too much. Why not an hour a day or something like that? An hour a day of exercise is great. It’s enough for me to more or less fix the problems caused by sedentarism, especially if I’m also doing lots of light activity such as cooking and easy walking and otherwise keeping up with basic household type of chores.
But I’ve done just about every form of exercise under the sun. Weights. Cardio. Cycling. Interval training. HIT. HIIT. Circuit training. Yoga. Pilates. Jogging. Team sports.
So far, in my quarter century of experimentation, none of those activities led to an ounce of weight loss. Only when my exercise levels start to reach several hours per day and beyond do the pants start getting loose in the waist. And that’s what most of the existing research shows–that a moderate and sustainable amount of exercise results in very little weight loss, if any, for most people.
From a scientific and statistical point of view, it appears that the most useful role of exercise when it comes to weight regulation are:
- To prevent weight gain in the first place
- To prevent or at least prolong weight regain after losing it through traditional means (intentional, consciously-controlled calorie deficit)
I can attest to that for the most part. Having spent years and years living in mountainous regions of the American west (outdoor recreation meccas like Aspen, Bozeman, and Jackson Hole), it’s obvious that a very active lifestyle including several hours of daily exercise in the form of cycling, skiing, hiking, climbing, surfing, and so forth is damn near close to being a foolproof preventer of obesity. If of course, unlike me, once you start you never stop. And I think this is really how it should be. We should be playing for hours a day, and our modern lifestyle and mindset, which often prevents or at least deters us from “acting naturally,” probably has a penalty attached to it that can’t be circumvented with a few sets of burpees once a week.
Weight loss conversations aside, I think it’s pretty clear from the breadth of the evidence available that exercise, in a general sense, is healthy. Being fit and functional improves quality of life and general health in a multitude of ways, especially as we advance in age.
But I have some reservations about recommending it for weight loss, because the Catch-22 is that a little isn’t enough, and a lot is unsustainable for most and may even result in a net weight gain if you fall off the wagon. Here is an article that echoes just about everything I’ve said so far.
In addition, virtually zero of the people I’ve met who exercise enough to be extremely lean and fit are doing it with weight loss in mind. They just do it for fun. They do it for adventure. Or perhaps they do it for competition’s sake, entering some races. It’s certainly not something that is boring drudgery or a means to an end for these people. Making it a chore just to lose some weight is a great way to completely ruin the enjoyment you should and could be experiencing from it. Your enjoyment of exercise should be protected at all costs.
By the way, I plan to spend yet another summer hiking this year. I enjoy it so much I’m willing to risk almost certain weight gain.
But hopefully I’ll find a way to continue exercising after the season is over. Florida is certainly not as fun in the outdoor recreation category as the Rockies, but I just bought a 70’s era bicycle (Edith, named after my favorite grandmother, although I’m discovering she’s a lot more like my other grandmother Mary Jane… a pain in the ass!), so maybe I’ll stir up some trouble with that.
Or maybe my high metabolism will finally start to result in weight loss. Right now it just makes me hot and sweaty, poop a lot, and have a lot of impure thoughts!
What are your personal experiences with exercise, for better or for worse, for general health and for weight loss? Is it really as effective for weight loss as most believe? Is Gary Taubes just being a dick when he says it’s useless? Should I stop talking about this and go back to discussing pee? I await your comments…
About the Author
Matt Stone is an independent health researcher, author of more than 15 books, and founder of 180DegreeHealth. He is best known for his research on metabolic rate and its central role in many health conditions as well as his criticisms of extreme dieting. Learn more by signing up for his free Raising Metabolism eCourse HERE, which also includes THIS FREE BOOK, and subscribing to the 180DegreeHealth podcast HERE.