Weight Loss

The Benefits of Exercise

Exercise is really great for general health. It can lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis and some cancers. In fact, people who work out on a regular basis are thought to lower their risk of dying from many of these illnesses by up to 50%. As we discussed in the stress eating post, exercise is also great for mental health by helping to manage stressors and allowing us to unwind. Although exercise is often advised for weight loss it really helps more for fat loss.

Reducing calories alone, without exercise, can reduce muscle as well as fat. In fact, one study in the Journal of Nutrition estimated that when people lose weight, about a quarter of the weight they lose is muscle. Exercising without a healthy diet is a poor weight loss strategy; in order to lose weight, fewer calories than the body requires to maintain its current weight must be taken in daily. Without a caloric deficit an individual will not lose weight. It also depends on the type of exercises that is done. Cardiovascular exercises, such as hiking, fast walking or biking, are important, but some weight-bearing exercises are also needed.

The American College of Sports Medicine reports that metabolism can be elevated for up to 24 hours post-exercise by adding just one little twist to an exercise routine: intervals. All that is needed is brief periods of intense effort within regular walks (or swims, bicycling, elliptical sessions, etc). The intensity effectively resets the metabolism to a slightly higher rate during the workout, and it takes hours for it to slow down again. That equals ongoing calorie burn long after you’ve showered and toweled off.

If walking for 30 minutes, try adding a burst of a faster pace or incline for 30 seconds every 5 minutes. As fitness improves, the interval length can be adjusted to a minute, and decrease the slower walking segments to 4 minutes. For the biggest metabolism boost, make sure you’re medically cleared for any activity before you start!

When calories are reduced, the body is forced to find other sources of fuel. Unfortunately, this means burning muscle protein along with fat stores. Including an exercise plan alongside a diet can reduce the amount of muscle that is lost. This is important because muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so preventing muscle loss can help counter the drop in metabolic rate that occurs when you lose weight, which makes it harder to lose weight and keep it off. Most of the benefits of exercise seem to come from improvements in body dimensions, overall tone and fitness, as well as metabolic health, not just weight loss. Even if actual pounds aren’t lost, fat may be reduced and muscle gained instead. That’s why the scale may not be telling the entire story. All too often, patients complain they’ve been exercising for weeks and not lost a pound. In some cases they have gained a little! Muscle weighs more than fat, so clothes fit larger, especially in the abdomen region, may be a better way to assess changes.

One of the most popular types of exercise for weight loss is aerobic exercise, also known as cardio. Examples include walking, running, cycling and swimming. Aerobic exercise doesn’t have a major effect on muscle mass, at least not compared to weight lifting. However, it is very effective at burning calories.

A recent 10-month study in the American College of Sports Medicine showed cardio can help you burn fat, especially belly fat, that increases the risk of type-2 diabetes and heart disease (as we discussed in this previous post). Therefore, adding cardio is likely to help manage weight and improve metabolic health. Just don’t compensate for the exercise by eating more calories instead.

According to the American Heart Association getting 150 minutes per week (30 minutes, five days a week) of moderate-intensity activity. Whether walking, biking, or hiking, try to work in that 150 minutes of exercise. It doesn’t have to be all at once. As we discussed in a previous post, any amount throughout the day will add up in the end. If possible, 10 minutes of consecutive exercise is best. Don’t worry how fast you’re moving. Just move and keep moving.

All physical activity can help burn calories. However, resistance training, such as weight lifting, has benefits that go beyond that. Resistance training helps increase the strength, tone and amount of muscle. This is important for long-term health, since inactive adults lose between 3–8% of their muscle mass per decade. Higher amounts of muscle also increases metabolism, which helps burn more calories around the clock — even at rest. This also helps prevent the drop in metabolism that can occur alongside weight loss.  One American Heart Association study of 48 overweight women on a very-low-calorie diet found that those who followed a weight lifting program maintained their muscle mass, metabolic rate and strength, even though they lost weight. Women who didn’t lift weights lost weight too, but they also lost more muscle mass and experienced a drop in metabolism. Doing some form of resistance training is really a crucial addition to an effective long-term weight loss plan. It makes it easier to keep the weight off, which in many cases is actually harder than losing it in the first place. Keep in mind, we are not trying to become the new Arnold Schwarzenegger. We just want enough weight to strengthen, tone and elongate the muscles. This also helps decrease osteoporosis as I’ll discuss in a later post. For women, a few pounds is usually enough, even if it’s just a water bottle. Too much weight increases the risk of harm. Make sure you’re cleared and ask how much is safe to lift. If it’s too hard or painful STOP! The last thing we want to do is set back all your hard earned work by causing a sprain, strain or experience a ruptured disc!

The effects of exercise on weight loss or gain varies from person to person. Although most people who exercise will lose weight over the long term, some people find that their weight remains stable and a few people will even gain weight One of the main complaints about exercise is that it can increase hunger and therefore, eating.  It’s also been suggested that exercise may result in overestimate the number of calories burned. Especially if machines that state caloric losses are used. Take these with a grain of salt. Yes, calories are burnt, but think of it as an added bonus, not a reason to reward yourself with food. This can prevent weight loss and even lead to weight gain. We can’t outrun a bad diet.

Although it doesn’t apply to everyone, studies show that some people do eat more after working out, which can prevent them from losing weight. Physical activity may influence the hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin is also known as “the hunger hormone” because of the way it drives our appetite. Interestingly, studies show that appetite is suppressed after intense exercise. This is known as “exercise anorexia” and seems tied to a decrease in ghrelin. But, levels return to normal after about a half an hour. Although there is a link between appetite and ghrelin, it doesn’t seem to influence how much people actually eat, we must be mindful of portion size. Some of that weight gain is actually muscle, not fat, which is heavier. All that being said, when comparing diet and exercise, changing diet tends to be more effective for weight loss than exercise. So the most effective strategy involves both diet and exercise

Keeping weight off is hard. According to a National Institute of Health (NIH) study, 85% of people who go on a weight loss diet are unable to keep the weight off. Those who do, tend to be ones who exercise up to an hour a day.

Find a type of physical activity you enjoy and that fits easily into your lifestyle. Walking the dog, biking, or swimming. This way, you have a better chance of keeping it up.

The message isn’t that the 30 minutes on the treadmill isn’t good. It’s that the 30 minutes on the treadmill isn’t going to make up for 23-and-a-half sedentary hours. Incorporate activity throughout the day. Even a few minutes at a time can add up. Make it fun, like dancing to a favorite song. Set realistic expectations and take small steps toward your weight goal. Soon, it’ll become a regular part of the day.

As much as weight and obesity are multifactorial, a healthy, nutritious diet with exercise will influence success the most.

    -Dr. Courtney

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