When it comes to weight loss practices, the belief that cardio is king and lifting weights is for guys instead of gals dominates our thinking to the point that it’s become an accepted cultural norm. Unfortunately, this mentality has two major drawbacks:
- It’s not grounded in scientific data.
- It’s part and parcel of a self-destructive, unsustainable diet mentality.
Think about what most people do when they need to lose a few pounds in a hurry. If they have a wedding coming up and want to look sharp in that bridesmaid’s dress or slim-cut tuxedo, they kick up the running and restrict their food intake. If they have a vacation planned and want to look good on the beach in a new bathing suit, they sign up for a bunch of cardio kickboxing classes, spinning sessions, and give fasting a shot because they’ve heard it works.
Here’s the truth: the weight loss community is overrun with quick fixes, which work in the short-term, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re neither sustainable nor healthy. The majority of programs only consider immediate results and don’t address the whole person, the whole body, or the whole life of the person and their body. Smashing the cardio and starving yourself is a recipe for disaster.
Smash and starve. It doesn’t even sound right. And it’s not healthy.
The Compensation Effect
A group of health and exercise scientists from Louisiana State University published a study in 2009 involving 464 overweight, post-menopausal women with sedentary lifestyles. They divided the participants into three exercise groups and one control group. Over a six month period, the control group maintained its typical non-exercise lifestyle, while the three exercise groups completed cardio work on recumbent bikes or treadmills. One group exercised 72 minutes per week, one exercised 136 minutes per week, and one exercised 194 minutes per weeks. All four groups were weighed weekly, had their waistlines measured, and filled out monthly medical-symptom questionnaires. Most importantly, they were all instructed not to change their dietary habits.
Traditional theory would lead us to believe the women who exercised more would lose more weight over the time period—but that’s not exactly what happened.
Almost all the women lost weight, including those in the control group. However, the women who exercised on treadmills and recumbent bikes did not lose significantly more weight than the control subjects. Even more interesting is that some participants in the exercise groups gained as much as ten pounds over the course of the study.
These counter-intuitive results are explained by what’s known in the health and exercise field as “The Compensation Effect.” It’s not at all uncommon when an individual embarks on an intense cardio-focused weight loss regimen. For a variety of reasons, people who go full-on cardio tend to overeat, and the energy simply doesn’t balance. Hormone levels were not measured in this particular study, but the increase in activity most likely triggered an increase in the hunger hormone ghrelin and a decrease in the satiety hormone leptin. Another complicating factor is that when we prioritize cardio work over strength training we lose lean muscle mass, which decreases our resting metabolic rate and makes it harder to maintain a constant weight. If you’re interesting in reading more about this cardio-specific phenomenon, read this excellent article published in 2014: “Does Cardio Make You Fat?”
Intense cardio work can lead to fast weight loss—there’s no disputing that. The reality is that losing weight is not the hardest part of the equation; keeping the weight off is the real trick. And to do that, it means more than spending a couple of months killing yourself on a treadmill, stationary bike, or running the hills in your neighborhood. The weight loss plans popularized by reality shows like “The Biggest Loser” perpetuate the myth that the secret to weight loss is brutally hard work and calorie restriction. Even more depressing is the idea that overweight and obese people are nothing more than weak-willed gluttons.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
People become overweight for scores of reasons. Everyone walks their own, unique path, and painting everyone who needs to lose weight with a broad, judgmental brush—like diet culture does—is short-sighted. This mindset also, for reasons lost on us here at Skyterra, seems to throw values such as empathy and compassion out the window. We want to point out that sometimes the very steps and information we perceive to be true—specifically those pushed on us by dieting culture—actually inhibit our long-term goals. The following three steps can help you break free of this nonsensical paradigm and get on track to sustainable health and wellness.
#1 Choose Exercise That Promotes Longevity
It’s too bad jumping on an elliptical trainer or running on a treadmill for a hard thirty minutes just doesn’t cut it in the long run. For most individuals, training for longevity is the goal. They want to live exceptional lives, free of constraints. They want to travel and function easily and efficiently every day. The form of exercise that best achieves these goals is weight training, not intense cardio.
Think of strength training like investing. If you put your money in a safe, low-cost, steady- growth mutual fund, by the time you retire you’ll be financially free. The earlier you start saving the better, but it’s never too late to start. When it comes to building lean muscle mass it’s virtually the same deal. Your body has the ability to change its composition for the better at any age. Better body composition means improved insulin sensitivity, bone density, and practical function.
A study published by The American Journal of Medicine in 2014 contains data which should’ve caused everyone in the country to drop everything and run straight to the weight machines. Scientists from the U.C.L.A. School of Medicine examined the body composition of over 3,500 people aged 55 and older over a 16 year period, and what they found was amazing: people with higher muscle mass/fat ratios showed statistically lower mortality compared to those with lower muscle mass/fat ratios. In plain English, this means muscle mass—i.e. better overall body composition—is a proven predictor of longevity. Now, consider the fact that the 25% of the weight lost in most standard diet/exercise programs is lost in muscle mass. On board with this whole weight training thing yet?
#2 Get Attached to the Feeling
When you get to a place where exercise is fun and energizing, you know you’ve arrived: you’ve broken out of the toxic exercise/diet mentality. It’s no longer a chore or a burden. You do it because it feels good and you feel good. You connect the wonderful, healthy feelings you get from exercise to a sense of inner peace and happiness, and that’s a huge difference maker with your weight management.
When you reach this point, you become more intuitive and flexible with your routine. You know you can take days off if you need to, and you won’t get totally off track. You’ve learned to listen to your body and you realize your inner voices are the most important metric—not the numbers on a scale, the readout on a treadmill, or the steps you log on your fitness tracker.
Those great feelings aren’t all in your head. Well, actually—they are. But in the best possible way. Exercise changes the brain. It improves both memory and cognitive function. The latest research in neurobiology shows regular aerobic exercise such as walking increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. There are also positive correlations between aerobic exercise and the decline in age related diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Note: the studies refer to activities like walking. Nowhere do they discuss suffering on a treadmill sweating bullets wearing a plastic bag while an aggressive trainer yells at you to “Keep going!”
#3 Ignore the Calorie Burn
If counting calories in vs. calories out was the answer to weight loss, we’d all be healthy and thin. You wouldn’t be reading this article and we wouldn’t have written it. But we’ve already demonstrated that exercise volume does not directly correlate to weight loss, so please: don’t waste your time obsessing over the calories you burn.
Breaking out of the diet mentality means understanding what works best over the long haul is not binging on workouts and limiting what you eat. Sustainable weight loss means eating real food in the right portions, getting quality exercise on a consistent basis, and living a life where you move your body every day. Also, the better you optimize your muscle mass/fat ratio the better your body will become at burning energy during rest. Higher lean muscle mass leads to an increased resting metabolic rate, which accounts for more than half of your energy expenditure every day.
It takes time to break the exercise/diet mentality. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s time for you to get out of the vicious cycle. Be patient with yourself and do the mental work it takes to uncover and adjust attitudes that may well be deeply embedded in your mind. Go for a walk. Lift some weights and get strong. Free yourself from stressing about calories burned. Choose sustainability. Choose longevity. It works!