I’ve exercised regularly since high school and I found that it has all sorts of benefits, including stress reduction/mental health benefits, added strength and endurance, and the overall feeling of being “in shape.” But along the way, I’ve believed things that didn’t turn out to be true. Here they are.
1. Exercise Causes Weight Loss
Maybe you’ve experienced this paradox: You adopt a disciplined and vigorous exercise program, and yet the weight just doesn’t come off. I’ve run four marathons and averaged over 50 miles a week of running during those months of training, and all those extra calories burned running resulted in zero pounds lost!
Studies over the past fifteen years confirm this paradox. A study of the Hadza – a hunter-gatherer tribe in Africa – found that the Hadza men burned about 2,600 calories a day and the women about 1,900 calories. That is the same as the average adult in the U.S., yet the Hadza are much more active than the average American! Why didn’t they burn more calories with all that extra exercise is confounding.
Another study of obese women placed on extreme calorie restricted diets found that the groups that exercised in addition to following the calorie restricted diets did not lose any more weight that the group who just followed calorie restriction. Many other studies have found similar results.
How does this happen? Experts are not sure. Basically, our bodies have evolved to keep our energy expenditure in check. It is possible that highly active people change their behaviors to conserve their energy in other ways when they are not active. Or, that our bodies reduce the calories spent on unseen tasks within our bodies such as inflammatory immune response. We aren’t sure. Our bodies evolved to keep our weight pretty stable – we consume about one million calories a year, yet our weight remains pretty constant from year-to-year.
So, we’re left with the following conclusions based on available information:
- exercise, especially strength and resistance training, is VERY important for overall health, but
- it’s your diet that is main driver of fat gain and loss, and
- your body wants to keep you at your current weight.
So, the adages that “abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym” and “you cannot outrun a bad diet” are true. Exercise is HUGELY IMPORTANT for all sorts of reasons, but if you are wanting to lose fat it’s your diet that will move the needle.
2. That Cardio is More Important that Weight Training
For much of my 30s and 40s, I focused on cardio and endurance. I competed in triathlons, ran marathons and half-marathons, and did a lot of cycling. My resistance training was sporadic.
Then I attended the three-day Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute’s Corporate Athlete Program (“HPI”). At HPI, I learned that while both cardio and strength training are important, we should prioritize strength training.
From birth until our early 30s, we gain muscle. From our mid-30s on we tend to lose about 1/2 pound of muscle a year – or about 3-5% of our muscle mass per decade. To make matters worse, this muscle is often replaced with fat. Thus, unless you combat muscle loss, if you maintain your weight as you age, you may not look as lean because you’ve lost muscle and replaced it with fat.
Building muscle and strength is essential as we age; it protects us from injury and helps us engage in activities that we love into our golden years. Plus, lower levels of strength are associated with greater all-cause mortality as discussed in this IFOD: Some Gripping Facts
What the experts at HPI told me was that at my stage of life (then mid-40s), I should try to build as much muscle as possible so as I hit my later years, I’d have a nice store of muscle to combat the more drastic decline in muscle mass that occurs in old age. Since attending HPI, I’ve focused on strength training and have viewed cardio as secondary. Looking for a good program to start strength training? I like Peloton’s strength training classes they have on their app.
3. Exercising Most Days is the Best Way to Improve Fitness
For years I’ve worked out six days a week and thought I was fine just taking a day off to recover. But a few years ago, my doctor advised me I had symptoms of overtraining and that by overtraining, I was harming my health. He told me to try working out every other day.
I tried it, and it’s been great. I feel better — I didn’t realize that all my exercise was making me feel run down. And surprisingly, I’ve made nice gains in my strength and fitness even with working out less. It turns out that having enough recovery is an essential aspect of training and that at my age (now 53), one day a week wasn’t enough. So, I’ve adopted a mindset that recovery days are training just like exercise days.
Plus, my Oura Ring tells me when my readiness isn’t optimal and that I need to take a recovery day. So, if I have a low score, I take a break.
4. My Form is Fine
When I started running long distances, it seemed like I was constantly injured: shin splints, hip pain, bursitis, and tendon strains. It sucked. In fact, I hadn’t run for 8 weeks prior to my first full marathon due to shin splints (I did a lot of elliptical and cycling to train). Then I was advised by a Physical Therapist that I had poor running form. So I read a book about how to adopt better form, purchased appropriate shoes, and was trained by my PT to run better. The result? No more running injuries.
But I didn’t learn from this. When I started lifting weights in earnest, I focused on lifting more and more weight and didn’t stop and focus on form. The result? A bunch of little injuries like muscle strains and pulls. And then a more major injury: one day I realized I had no feeling in my right big toe. A trip to an orthopedic revealed that I had injured L4-L5 in my spine due to improper form in doing deadlifts and squats. Ugh. PT fixed it, but again I had to learn the hard way that form trumps weight/intensity.