Exercising But Not Losing Weight?

Dear Health Conscious Reader,

A cover story in TIME magazine tells you exercise won’t help you lose weight.

In the article, a professor from Louisiana State University says, “… for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless.”1

If you’re a regular reader you may already recognize the ignorance of this professor’s statement.

What is he missing?

Well, it depends on what type of exercise.

My rebuttal to this ignorance is going to take awhile, but bear with me, this is important.

Conventional exercise, like aerobics, jogging, marathon running are not the best exercises for weight loss. That type of exertion actually trains your body to make and store more fat.

When you exercise for long periods at a time, like most people do when they go to the gym, you push your body into its “fat burning zone.” Most fitness gurus tell you to get into your fat burning zone and stay there for as long as you can take it… but that’s a problem. You don’t want to burn fat during exercise.

Burning fat during exercise tells your body it needed the fat. This trains your body to make more fat for the next time you exercise.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t use exercise to lose fat. In fact, it’s one of the most effective tools you can use to hit and maintain your ideal weight. I use it myself and I recommend it to my patients.

However, if you want to burn fat and keep it off, exercise in short bursts of high intensity. This is the basis of my PACE program.

How does it work? It has to do with what your body uses for fuel during exercise. For the first two or three minutes of a workout you burn ATP, your body’s cellular energy source. Then you start burning carbs from muscle tissue. After about 20 minutes you switch to fat.

Exercising for short periods will use these carbs during exercise. Then you start to burn fat after your workout – while you replenish the carbs.

This is known as your “after burn.”

Researchers at Laval University in Quebec divided participants into two groups: long-duration and repeated short-duration exercisers.2 They had the long-duration group cycle 45 minutes without interruption. The short-term interval group cycled in numerous short bursts of 15 to 90 seconds, while resting in between.

The long duration group burned twice as many calories, so you would assume they would burn more fat. However, when the researchers recorded their body composition measurements, the interval group showed the most fat loss.

In fact, the interval group lost 9 times more fat than the endurance group for every calorie burned. Doesn’t this defy the laws of physics? No, it just illustrates that exercise continues to affect your metabolism after you stop. The short bursts stimulated a greater after burn.

You might think burning fat during exercise makes sense. But your body will adapt to any routine you give it, including exercise. And if you burn fat during a workout and you do that workout consistently, your body will make sure you have new fat to burn each time you go to the gym.

After a while your body becomes efficient at building and preserving fat necessary for long aerobic sessions in preparation for the next endurance workout. In doing so, it sacrifices muscle and preserves fat.

So don’t bother trying to use this strategy to lose body fat. Your body will fight you in the effort and you can only do it by sacrificing lean tissue like muscle and internal organs.

Durational exercise tells your body to build fat. That’s how your body adapts to this kind of activity. Then, if you stop your cardio routine, you’ll put on even more fat very rapidly. This is common as your body gets into the routine of making the extra fat.

It’s an endless cycle. And eventually, everyone stops doing cardio. Many just get bored. But many find they have to stop cardio because this unnatural activity has caused degeneration of their joints.

And another point: If you persist through middle age and beyond, cardio accelerates some very negative effects of aging. It lowers testosterone and growth hormone, boosts destructive cortisol levels and robs you of muscle, bone and internal organ mass and strength.

But short-duration exercise – like PACE – actually increases levels of growth hormone. Researchers from Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England tested growth hormone levels in sprinters and endurance athletes. On average, the sprinters had 3 times as much growth hormone as the endurance runners.3

The biggest point they missed is this: The most important changes from exercise occur after, not during, the exercise period. The way you exercise affects your metabolism for several days. The important changes begin after you stop exercising.

This is good news. It means all you have to do during your exercise is stimulate the adaptive response you need – like reducing your need for fat or building reserve capacity in your heart. Your body will continue making the important changes afterwards – while you rest.

You don’t need to go to the gym to get started. Even if you’re out of shape you can start with a challenge that’s within your reach.

Let’s take walking as an example. This is the easiest way to get started if you’re de-conditioned or facing a physical challenge.

Here are a few points to consider: When you’re walking, you need to start at a comfortable pace and slowly speed up until you feel your heart rate increase. When you feel this extra bit of exertion, maintain it until you start to feel winded. Then stop and catch your breath. Take a few minutes to recover and focus on your breath until you’re breathing normally. This will be your first “set.”

It may look something like this: You put on a comfortable pair of walking shoes and some loose-fitting clothes. You start off on the sidewalk or on a quiet street. You could also go to the gym and work on a treadmill.

You warm up by walking at a normal, comfortable pace for 1 to 2 minutes. Then you slowly start to walk faster. As you increase your speed, pick a target and then maintain it. This is a little subjective, so you’re going to have to get a feel for it.

For example, when you start off walking at a normal pace, imagine your top walking speed and then work back from there. So tell yourself, “I’m going to walk normally and then increase my speed by about 15%.” Then hold that speed and maintain it for a few minutes.

If you don’t feel like that increase is giving you a challenge, go up a notch until you’ve increased your speed by 20 to 25%. Then hold that speed and maintain it for a few minutes.

This is how you gauge your exertion level. You know you’re getting close when you feel your heart rate go up. And when you feel this extra exertion, look at your watch and see how long you can sustain it. If you can do it for 2 to 3 minutes, great. If not, it doesn’t matter. Just follow this pattern.

After you’ve challenged yourself for a few minutes, stop and rest. Ideally, you should feel winded. You should be breathing heavier than you usually do and you should feel your heart beating faster. Now begin your recovery period. Allow your heart rate and breath to return to normal.

When you’ve completed your first set, try another. At this point, repeat your first set without increasing your intensity. If you want to ramp up the challenge, increase the amount of time you walk at a faster speed.

By walking and first gauging your exertion capacity, you can do a productive PACE routine at your own level. It doesn’t matter how quickly you can walk. Even if your top exertion speed is just above your normal walking speed, you can give yourself enough of a challenge to expand your lung volume and build reserve capacity in your heart.

This gradual build up in cardio-pulmonary power will get you to higher levels and extend your endurance. Little by little, you’ll become more and more conditioned and better able to handle more intense challenges.

When you feel you’ve improved your exercise capacity – or if you want to start with something more challenging than walking – use this same formula with swimming or biking. Both give you a good heart and lung workout.

Swimming is helpful if you have a disability as the water’s buoyancy will take the strain off your joints and make it easier to move. Biking is also very effective for de-conditioned beginners and you have the option of doing it outside or in the gym.

Like walking, take it slow and evaluate your exertion level. Don’t strain yourself. Take small, deliberate steps and stay with your program. Within the first week, you’ll start to see progress.

By gently encouraging your heart and lungs to maximize their output, you’ll be able to improve right away. What’s more, you’ll be able to successfully start a productive PACE routine, no matter what your age, condition or personal history.

As you progress, do less walking and put more focus on swimming and biking. And when you feel ready, try some of the basic routines in your PACE book. Once you’ve made headway with your heart and lungs you’ll be able to increase your challenge and activate your native fat burner.

With a sufficient challenge, you’ll start to burn fat after your PACE routine. This fat burning will last as long as 16 to 24 hours after you finish. But your first goal will be to build cardio-pulmonary power by establishing a PACE routine that accommodates your current situation.

This in itself is a major victory. A lot of folks can’t get past the false assumption that they’ll never be able to do it. With PACE, you never have to make excuses, as you can always find a routine that perfectly matches your current level.

To Your Good Health,

Al Sears, MD

  1. Cloud, J. “The Myth About Exercise,” TIME Magazine, August 17, 2009, pp. 42 – 47.
  2. Metabolism 1994; 43: 814-818
  3. Van Helder WP. et al., Effect of Anaerobic and Aerobic Exercise of Equal Duration and Work Expenditure on Plasma Growth Hormone Levels, Eur J Appl Physiol 52 (1984) : 255-257.