Less Is NOT More: The Myth of the Exercise “Sweet Spot”

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Suffering is not an effective strategy.

How many people wake up on January 1st with a mouth tasting like they’ve been French-kissing a komodo dragon and drag their hung-over butt to a place they’d rather not be to do some exercise they’d rather not do because it’s time to follow through on that New Year’s resolution?

The night before they had a booze-to-blood ratio that would tranquilize Charlie Sheen, and now they’re going to suffer through something they hate and starve their bodies with some fad diet because this year is the one they finally get in shape.

That’s a bad plan. It’s no plan. It is white-knuckle fitness based on the “I must endure this torture” mentality that has a higher failure rate than a Taylor Swift relationship.

People want a quick fix. They want to hear they can accomplish more by doing less. A 2012 study study out of Denmark showed that could indeed happen. I mean, it appears that way if you’re not looking at the big picture.

Using 61 sedentary and overweight men, they compared moderate exercise (burn 300 calories via exercise each day) with high exercise (burn 600 calories via exercise per day). And guess what? The “moderate” group lost more weight.

No, when it comes to exercise, I will not say, “less is more.” MORE is more, dammit! (Although there is such a thing as the law of diminishing returns.) Let us dissect.

These Danish men were both sedentary and overweight. Doing the moderate 300-calories worth of exercise a day did not wipe them out; it energized them, because it was at a tolerable level of movement for their out-of-shape bodies. They engaged in additional movement during the day because of their currently suitable exercise regimen, and they also had the brain energy to make wise food choices.

The other group, however, jumped from overweight and sedentary to a far more punishing 600-calories worth of exercise each day, and this meant they spent a lot of the rest of the day sitting around because they were tired and in pain. What’s more, it wiped out the brain energy required to resist eating junk food.

On that note, until recently we believed willpower to be a limited resource. In the Denmark study they wiped the high-exercise guys out so much it could be viewed that they drained their willpower resources not just to move, but also to make wise food choices. This was known as “ego depletion,” but as I showed in this piece, there is a case to be made that we have just as much willpower as we believe we do. For example, if, through say a life-changing epiphany, you feel as though God threatened to shove a lightning bolt up your ass if you don’t get in shape, it is possible to find yourself in possession of an indomitable will to change your lifestyle. Such is the story of Chuck Gross, who after such a transformative moment felt compelled to lose half his body weight and keep it off.

That being written, just because willpower is not proven to be a finite resource, personal physiology and psychology can play a role if you go too hard out of the gate.

Expending an appropriate level of energy on exercise can do wonders for improving control over what you eat. Controlling what you eat is what is going to lead to fat loss. But when you overdo it daily it is possible to tire yourself so much your food choices go to excrement. The earlier article I posted explained that ego depletion has been debunked, but in the real world it doesn’t mean it can’t still happen under extreme circumstances. When I was training to qualify for Boston I gained fat because I was so drained from the endless running I found myself making lousy eating decisions. (Side note: Don’t use marathon training as a fat loss strategy.)

Couple exhaustion leading to poorer eating habits in the high exercise group with the fact that they spent the rest of the day sitting on their asses and of course they would lose less weight than the moderate group.

For these candidates, 300 calories of exercise per day was the right amount of exercise (for now) but burning 600 calories per day was too much, too soon. My main point is this: They can get there!

The New York Times seems to have missed this point. In fact, NYT seems to have a thing for suggesting less is more when it comes to exercise.

Can you exercise so you’re burning 600 calories a day or even more? Hell, yes! But take your time getting there. I go on multi-hour bike rides that burn thousands of calories, but it took me years to develop that kind of endurance. This trial only lasted 13 weeks and it was misrepresented as being a metabolic miracle. If they’d kept the trial going for several more months the higher exercise group would have eventually adapted (to varying degrees based on genetics) and most likely become leaner and fitter, but they suffered early on.

The idea that exercise is suffering and you should seek to minimize it has created many a bestselling book. One such is The Calorie Myth by Jonathan Bailor, which says in the subtitle: “How to Eat More, Exercise Less, Lose Weight …” I did a bit of a hostile interview with Bailor a while back where he insisted he didn’t deny calories in – calories out. But he still perpetuated the myth of less is more as a marketing gimmick to hit that New York Times bestseller list.

Another such book is the Metabolic Effect Diet, which proclaims in the subtitle that you can “Eat More, Workout Less, and Actually Lose Weight While You Rest.” I haven’t read the book, but can make a reasoned assumption the from the title / subtitle combination this is some of that go balls out for brief periods high-intensity myth perpetuation of how you can amp up your metabolism for a mega calorie “after burn” known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Read my pieces on the myth of EPOC making an appreciable difference to total daily energy expenditure here and here.

It’s worth noting that even short bursts of high-intensity exercise can be detrimental for fat loss for some groups. People with higher levels of obesity may have low lactate thresholds and just a small amount high-intensity work can wipe them out for the rest of the day. On the dietary side, looking at the Amazon reviews I determined this book also pushes several small meals a day, which is another metabolic-boosting myth I debunked here.

Let’s be clear: There is no “sweet spot” for exercise. Be it intensity, length of time, frequency, or type of exercise, there is simply what you can adapt yourself to based on your genetics, life situation, age, injuries, goals, finances, and personal psychology. And both physiology and psychology will adapt over time.

Find something you are passionate about, work hard, incrementally pushing your efforts, and you can go WAY beyond 600 calories a day burnt via exercise. Right now I am averaging 1,200 calories burned via exercise six days a week (via a combination of running and lifting). I’m doing this as part of an aggressive fat loss program after having been sidelined with plantar fasciitis (coupled with lots of travel) that packed on some unwanted pounds. And it’s working like a mofo.

I could do less exercise and more non-exercise movement, but that shit is boring for me. We also live in a world where machines do a lot of work for us. For me, it’s easier (and more fun) to just train.

Some days I’ll burn as many as 3,000 calories via exercise, such as going skiing or for an extra-long bike ride. It is true that I’m a couch-riding bag of shit who burns negligible calories the rest of the day when I do that, but who cares? The non-exercise activity I’m missing out on was never going to be even close compared to the mega burn I had from kicking my ass on boards or bike. Even if I take the next day off because I’m tired from a four-hour ride that burned 3,000 calories I’m still coming out way ahead.

I did not start off exercising at such high levels. If I had tried to exercise at my current level when I began at the age of 25 I might have died. But now, at 48 years old, this high level of exercise is enjoyable for me, and it’s done amazing things for my health, performance and physique. It’s my hobby and I liked doing it! Yes, there are ultimate limits to the endurance of the human body, but it’s a micro-percentage who test them.

This diatribe is not meant to discount the value of working smarter instead of harder. As I wrote in this piece, as an example, training to failure in weightlifting is a tool that should be used sparingly. There are times the body needs to de-load and ease off, but this doesn’t mean you believe the bullshit of “less is more” and that you must artificially hold yourself back if your body is telling you it can and wants to do more.

There is merit in having ambitious physical goals. Don’t deny yourself chasing them. Aspire to be awesome.

Some 13-week study of couch potatoes put through a torture session is NOT the real world. YOU need to listen to what your body tells you, and push it just a little out of it’s comfort zone in increments to get the desired adaptation. Studies like this don’t tell you what you need to know. This is something where instinct can play a vital role.

If exercise is energizing you, making you want to make healthy choices, and you feel like you’re in harmony with your workout schedule and you enjoy doing it and pushing yourself – that’s a good amount.

You can go long, and you can go hard, if you take your time getting there. No one likes the way it feels to go way beyond their limits, running as if they’re being chased by a wolverine on a meth bender, lungs rasping like an asthmatic Darth Vader after a dozen bong hits of flesh-eating bacteria. Significant results require significant effort, but if you see your dead grandma beckoning you towards the light, you’re pushing too hard.

Know what you get when you try to turn into a workout warrior overnight? A “you-shaped” bag of pain who thinks exercise sucks.

“The biggest mistake people make when starting a fitness program is doing too much and too hard,” sport psychologist Jim Taylor told me. “There are few rewards early in an exercise program and many disincentives: a sense of incompetence, negative social comparison, pain, fatigue, sweat …”

So don’t make yourself suffer. You’ll be less likely to feel the love, and it can hurt your ability to lose weight. You might even injure yourself. Yes, you can still become a hardcore workout warrior by taking the tortoise approach rather than being a hare.

Slow progress is still progress.

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