Of Course Exercise Helps for Losing Weight. Don’t Be Fucking Stupid

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When I decided to lose weight, I started with exercise. It worked.

And it still fucking works.

I began running in the days before Facebook, so I didn’t have to mentally combat all the “information” one sees on a daily basis about how running causes adrenal fatigue / makes you fat / heats up the planet / shrinks your penis / makes you dead.

To me, at the time, running to lose weight just made sense. It still makes sense.

My older sister made me drink mustard.

Hang in there; the previous sentence did not actually come out of nowhere. It’s relevant.

I was 10. My sister asked me to feed her fish. Afterwards, I was eating an apple and my sister cried out, “Oh, no! You didn’t wash your hands before eating that apple, did you?” And I was all like, “Wait-what-no-huh?” and then she was freaking out saying, “You still have fish food on your hands! Quick! There isn’t much time! We have to give you the antidote!”

The “antidote” to toxic fish flakes was hot water with mustard mixed in. I managed to get about half of a large glass choked down at her insistence. Then I was crying and running away from her screaming I couldn’t drink anymore, and she was chasing me, foul brew in hand, yelling, “But if you don’t drink it all you’ll die!” and I was shouting back, “I’d rather die!”

Thankfully, that was when Mom came home.

You could say I was a gullible child, and my evil older sister exploited it. This was not the only time I fell for one of her pranks. Traumatic experiences aside, I suppose I owe her a debt for making me into the skeptic I am today. Due to my desire to not swallow any more mustard and hot water concoctions, I evaluate most new information with a discerning eye.

Modern information overload seems detrimental to common sense. Back in 1993, when I decided to get in shape, the internet was barely a thing. The only science I knew about weight loss was the importance of a caloric deficit, which I’d learned from my family physician.

So I got on a stairclimber.

It was a “Universal” that allowed for long strides so you could work hard on it. I listened to Rush and Joe Satriani mix tapes for motivation. Two months later I started adding in weightlifting, which I liked way more than that damn stairclimber, butstairclimber I kept up with the stairway to nowhere for a full year.

Coupled with easing off junk and fast food, during that year I dropped about 50 lbs of fat and gained roughly 20 lbs of muscle.

But then my back couldn’t take anymore. The stairclimber put me at a slight forward hinge and my lower lumbar discs, which had been problematic since I was a teen, made it impossible to keep going. So I quit the stairclimber and just stuck with the weights.

And I quickly gained back about 20 lbs of fat, then levelled off. I stayed there for the next ten years, with lifting as my only form of exercise.

I could have lost those 20 lbs again through stricter dietary control, but the most important part of using diet for weight loss is adherence. The reality is, I love food and beer. I can make myself eat reasonably well, but I can’t eat strictly enough over the long term, paying extra close attention to all my calories (which is necessary for me because of the obesity genes in my family) to get down to a 31” waist without adding in extra caloric burn via aerobic exercise. Prior to my weight loss journey, I had a 37” waist. While using the stairclimber I got down to 31”, then when I stopped it climbed back to 34” and stayed there.

I wanted to be at 31” again. Running seemed a logical way to accomplish that. Common sense dictated it would work.

And despite what the research asserts, exercise does work for weight loss, as long as you put in some effort.

My friend James Heathers wrote an excellent piece dissecting the research that proclaims exercise is not effective for weight loss; I recommend you read it. In it he explains that, by necessity, such studies have mild exercise interventions. In his piece he derides the lack of context these studies engender, saying that in the real world, when people actually commit to a moderately intense exercise regimen, it “works a damn sight better than ‘30 minutes at 50% of maximum heart rate’, otherwise known as a LITERAL WALK IN THE PARK.”

The reality is that only about 5% of the U.S. population exercises long enough, frequently enough, and with enough intensity to have a meaningful impact on weight loss. When it comes to garnering minimal health benefits, that percentage climbs to 23%. So more than three-quarters of the American population get the square root of fuck all for exercise. Studies that say it’s useless for weight loss I expect contribute to such low adherence.

This isn’t meant to diminish the importance of diet; I’ve gone so far as to say weight loss is 100% about diet because even if you train at ridiculously high levels you can still manage to eat more than you burn if you try.

But a good calorie burn makes being in a deficit so much easier.

Running means I can practice caloric awareness rather than calorie counting. Running means I can eat more food and more treats. And even though I’m currently on an alcohol hiatus, running means I can drink beer and still be lean.

Running means I don’t go hungry and can indulge more frequently. I still indulge mindfully, but the frequency with which I get to have ice cream and pizza is a lot higher than what it would be were I not a runner.

The James Heathers’s article I mentioned earlier gives a good breakdown of the caloric burn rates of various exercises. I chose running because of its practicality and its high caloric burn rate. When I run a 10K at a decent pace I burn about 850 calories above what I would sitting on the couch. If I do that four times a week that represents almost a pound of fat each week.

Yes, there are all sorts of metabolic adaptation issues and improved running efficiency and whatnot, but these do not counter the fact that high caloric burns are still possible for those who are both very fit and very lean, regardless of exercise type. And as I’ve written about time and again, weightlifting as both a calorie-burner and as an alleged resting metabolism booster isn’t going to have the same impact as logging lots of rapidly bipedal miles.

It is also worth noting that, of the people who volunteered their information for the National Weight Control Registry, 94% said they increased their physical activity as part of losing weight.

There are no end of bullshit articles proclaiming running is useless (and even harmful!) for weight loss. Recently I did an exposé of such an article. But as I mentioned, I took up running before the age of Facebook, so my mind wasn’t polluted with ideas that it might not work for losing weight.

Because it works like a motherfucker.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the high intensity nature of running (as long as you’re going at a pace that feels like you’re working hard) has profound benefits for improving appetite control and dietary adherence. It has to do with how such exercise affects your brain.

Anecdotally, I know that any time I run in the morning I have excellent appetite control for the entire day. A primary reason for this is that a hard workout affects the same neurochemical reward pathways in the brain as does highly palatable treat food. By going for a hard run those reward pathways are “pre-sated.” I get my fix from sweat and therefore don’t crave sugar.

I have spoken with many runners who all proclaim the same effect. Conversely, I’ve spoken with many lifters who say lifting makes them want to eat. It certainly does for me. And this isn’t to be down on lifting at all, but it’s why I move my lifting sessions to later in the day so it doesn’t drive my appetite into overdrive.

There is a certain logic to it; lifting is done to build muscle, which would send messages that you need to increase caloric intake to do so. For a naturally skinny person this can be helpful, but for someone who is trying to lose fat and build muscle at the same time (which is totally possible), a caloric deficit is still necessary.

Of course, there is such a thing as overdoing it. When I was training to qualify for Boston I actually gained fat because I was so mentally wiped out from the effort that I couldn’t resist beer and treat food. I’ve often said training for a marathon is a terrible way to lose weight. Conversely, I think training for a fast 5 to 10K can be very beneficial for weight loss. I lean towards favoring 10K as the best “fat loss distance” for the average person.

People will twist research and tell you what you want to hear (“Running is bad – don’t do it!”) and those who fear running will eat it up because becoming a runner is hard.

It is so very hard, especially if you’re genetically programmed to suck at it, like me with my short legs and wide hips.

But I started with very short distances and tacked on little bits here and there. It didn’t take long before I was getting up to regular 5K distances and felt competent enough to run with work colleagues at lunch time. Then I kept pushing, running sub four-hours in my first marathon, then qualifying for Boston, then easing off again and saying I was never doing that again because holy fuck.

I’m 48 now. I’m getting old. I need to be careful because the body doesn’t recuperate like it once did. I expect that by the time I’m 60 I’ll have to ease off the running a bit and I may gain back some fat if I don’t also change my diet further. But I’ll be 60, at which point I’ll care much less about seeing my abs. I hope to be writing about stuff other than fitness at that point anyway.

But in all this, an important qualification needs to be made. I’m not the type to think that everyone needs to just suck it up and go hard or go home. Using exercise as a tool for weight loss involves being able bodied and even having “fit privilege.” What’s more, people with higher levels of obesity often have lower lactate thresholds and can be wiped out quickly by high-intensity efforts, making such types of exercise useless for weight loss. Therefore, they must seek other options for physical activity. This piece about non-exercise activity I wrote the Chicago Tribune has some details.

What this story boils down to is that weight loss takes sustained effort, both in terms of diet and exercise (or other activity). And the harder you work at one, or both, the greater the results. Running frequently, for long distances, at a reasonably fast pace is a LOT of work, and that’s why it gets such awesome results in the fat loss department.

You know, as long as you don’t use it as an excuse to inhale half the kitchen after each run.

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