Vail Daily column: Can you train hard and lose weight?
October 3, 2016
During the 1980s, blindsided with the findings of Ancel Keys and his Seven Countries study, we found ourselves fighting the war on obesity assuredly caused by saturated fat intake. Keys concluded that saturated fats were dangerous to our health — the high-carb, low-fat diet craze began. Millions of obesity cases later, we have rewritten the science books as many of his findings were found to be shortsighted. By the way, why is it that we have to rewrite science books every other year? We don't know what we don't know.
I too was naive with diet throughout childhood. Coming from an educated family, my parents were well read and kept up with trends. My parents argued that eating fat made you fat. Fat people are conscious of their weight — I read food labels as early as 10 years old to avoid eating this incriminating macronutrient to thwart off the increasing waistline that plagued my adolescence. If a package was gleefully labeled "low fat," I thought it was fair game. This was unfortunate as my weight crept to 260 pounds by my first year of high school.
This discussion isn't about diet. Diet culture is more controversial than the current state of our political affairs; thank goodness this drama will be in our rearview mirror in a few short weeks. This discussion is about why you are still fat — even though you exercise really hard.
You hike a lot and perform yoga twice per week. You're a regular at spin class. CrossFit, or other high intensity fitness programs are in your wheelhouse. You eat right, and try not to drink too much. You are so frustrated because you just can't lose the weight! Hear this and never forget it — exercise is a terrible tool for weight loss. Let me repeat that differently. Exercise, particularly high intensity interval training, is not ideal for promoting weight loss. Assuredly the case, until they rewrite the literature in a few years when they find out that exercise indeed causes your nose hairs to grow.
The problem with high intensity exercise (or long duration activity) is the overwhelming systemic training stress that causes a cascade of hormonal and structural changes that alert you to eat — and to eat a lot! I have rarely witnessed a student, myself included, that has experienced weight loss success during a period of high intensity or long duration physical activity. It just doesn't happen. Mostly, you are fighting against your most basic, biological need to aggressively establish homeostasis after a large disruption to your hard drive. Burn enough energy, and your brain is signaling to eat! Secondly, there is a sizeable psychological nudge to disaster; "I burned 600 calories during spin class this morning, and it almost killed me. Surely I can eat anything and probably lose weight because of the effort." You wonder why the scale didn't move when you celebrated with an 800-calorie desert.
Here's what you need to know. Can you effectively train really hard, and lose weight? Yes. Will you need a stronger resolve than most? Absolutely. You'll need to deny your biological craving to eat; a challenging proposition in a state of recovery from intense exercise. You can quote me on that. Remaining in a caloric deficit, regardless of whether the calories come from protein, carbohydrates, or goodness forbid fat, is a necessity — this is absolutely not up for debate. Here's the rub. It's entirely easier to remain in a caloric deficit in the absence of intense physical effort.
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So what should you do? I recommend using a caloric tracking app or program such as MyFitnessPal. Regardless, find your caloric threshold for losing weight during a period when you're not exercising aggressively. Find the number, and stay under it. It's really that simple. For exercise, stay out of the intermediate, high heart rate zone that is prevalent in events like 400-meter sprinting, the Tabata method, high intensity spin, CrossFit WODs, etc. If the effort is really intense for up to a few minutes, steer clear during fat loss attempts. Lactic acid burn? Don't do it. Instead, focus on heavy lifting in the 3-5 rep range for multiple sets, with long rest periods. Take a three- to four-mile walk every day. Stay busy around the house, and shoot for daily "activity." Weigh in regularly, adjust caloric intake as needed.
Rinse, repeat, and check in eight weeks from now. By the way, whether Ancel was right or not is beside the point. The point is that avoiding fats didn't make a difference yesterday, and your high intensity puke session isn't making a dent in the scale today. Have a great week!
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards' passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at http://www.r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.
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