Logic Does Not Apply IV: Exercise for Weight Loss

The beginning of the year causes an accumulation of annoyance for those of us serious about our training. Thousands flock to the gym with no motivation or goal other than a resolution that only resolves how to spend another 20 to 40 dollars a month on a gym membership they’ll use for three weeks.

The newbies form a human sludge as they meander, grabbing random dumbbells, picking one machine or another, or worse, throwing their lot in with a certified trainer whose love-handles double as a new type of anatomy, hip breasts. These people have no idea why they’re in this faux magazine reality called a gym other than knowing that weight-loss success exists on the other side of a set of crunches or eight weeks of bootcamp.

Experts support the claim with rock-solid ratiocination: exercising takes extra work, and extra work requires energy, and all this extra energy—in the form of food—is why you’re fat in the first place, therefore exercise makes you skinny.

As compelling as this logic may seem, it ignores a simple fact of the human body: it can run at different efficiencies. From a physicist’s point of view, the human body is only a heat engine, a complex version of the engine in your car. Sometimes you get better gas mileage, more distance from less fuel. The human body obeys these same laws.  I detail the phenomenon in the last installment of this series: Logic Does Not Apply III: A Calorie Is A Calorie (the article proves that a calorie is definitely not a calorie).

The Idea

Exercise without dietary changes is sufficient to achieve weight loss goals.

The Logic

Exercise requires more energy than normal day-to-day tasks like sitting or playing video games, therefore exercise should burn excess calories, put the body into caloric deficit and melt the pounds away.

The Reality

When starting a weight loss plan, for almost nine months exercise causes nearly zero weight loss unless accompanied by a dietary intervention. Succinctly: Exercise alone does not cause significant weight loss.

I’m not going to go over the science of human efficiency. I covered all of that in the last installment, and, to be honest, we can refute the idea that exercise is a route to fat loss with far simpler evidence than the thermodynamic regulation of the human body.

If exercise does affect fat loss, we could create very simple experiments to determine the amount. Take one group of subjects and tell them to do nothing—these would be our controls. Now take a second group, and have them keep everything identical in their day except for an added an hour of exercise, or maybe two. The two groups should keep their calories identical to pre-experiment levels.

This one’s a no-brainer. The control group obviously wouldn’t and didn’t lose weight over the test period. The exercising group, of course, must have washboard abs, chiseled pecs or maybe firm sexy thighs and shapely arms.

That’s the promise of every exercise-only program out there but, interestingly, the exercising group suffered a bit of a snag. At the end of the trial, their body weight and body fat levels were identical to when they started. And this isn’t the result of just one study, but 6 different studies [7,11,14,18-20].

Okay, what if we do throw in dietary changes too, that’ll make a difference, won’t it? No, it won’t. In many of those same studies as well as additional ones, researchers tested another set of variables. Two groups made identical dietary changes, but one group exercised in addition. The exercise group should have been in a much larger energy deficit than the non-exercising group and, again, should have experienced massive fat loss in comparison. But those same studies showed the same thing: exercise didn’t do jack. Diet caused 100% of the weight loss and at the end, the two groups lost identical amounts of fat and weight [1-18].

Every fitness expert and CrossFit-adherent is probably imagining a pseudo-sciencey, logical-sounding excuse for these results, even if the best they can come up with is, "I don’t believe it, and I’ll yell until you believe me, so believe me." Sorry kids, these are well done studies and facts don’t lie—but people who can’t escape archaic ideas like, “it’s all calories in, calories out,” will. That fact is that at least 23 different, well-controlled studies show that exercise alone does little for fat loss [1-20, 50-52].

The correct explanation for the lack of results is a simple matter of efficiency. The body immediately sees the extra work and takes measures to adjust to the extraneous outlets of energy—like reducing body-heat production [21-27]—to spare energy for these crazy new activities that desk-jockey’s thrust themselves into without thought or consideration. If they won’t think, the body will do it for them.

The body can down-regulate metabolism—start sparing calories and becoming more efficient—within three days of any type of negative energy balance [28-37].

I don’t really know what’s so hard about this concept of efficiency when it’s applied to the human body. Everybody understands when someone’s more efficient at a job now than they were two weeks ago, that untrained muscles become more efficient at lifting weight within a week of training [38-49] or that a car is more efficient when driven on the highway rather than in the city. Nobody rebuffs.

But once you say the human body adjusts its efficiency to get more mileage from food, all of sudden, the industry gurus spew vitriol in all directions, as if the concept of efficiency triggered a crocodilian, medulla-oblongata-mediated anger response brought on from the immediate knowledge of their own ignorance.

A large study conducted in the Midwest followed the weight loss efforts of 131 people. After 16 months, the research team came to a stunning conclusion: no one should expect any weight loss from exercise—sans diet—for at least nine months [53].  That’s right, no one. So maybe you or someone you know lost some weight with exercise, but if you lost more than one pound per month, you unknowingly changed your diet as well [54-56]. There is no other explanation, no matter how much you want to believe in Disney Fairytales or that you or your friend is a special little flower. You’re bound by the same constraints as the rest of us.

Start your weight-loss resolution now and see results for next year’s resolution, 2013, and paltry one’s at that. After those nine months end, expect about six pounds of fat loss total. A full 365 days of effort for six pounds: Happy New Year!

Before the questions begin flooding in, I am not suggesting an exercise-free weight loss protocol. Exercise is a critical part of the process because it helps prevent muscle loss during weight loss [3-5, 16, 17, 57-65]. Exercise is important and indispensable when losing weight, but it will not, despite the rancid logic used to defend it, cause much, if any, weight loss without concurrent dietary changes.

Make serious effort toward your goals, change the way you eat and add the right type of exercise (this is a good excuse to try Carb Nite, Carb Back-Loading or a Shockwave Protocol). If you do both—change your diet and exercise—you can transform your body in what the experts will tell you are impossible ways and join the ranks of the Super Heroes In Training.

Super Heroes do the impossible and the impossible happens every day for members of Dangerously Hardcore.

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