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The Importance, and Futility of Exercise

Exercise. For years it has been said that if you want to lose weight and be healthy, you need to exercise. If you talk to twenty people about what kind of exercise you should do, you’ll get twenty different responses. Even if the quest is just to lose weight. Many people equate losing weight with being healthy, and for quite a lot of folks out there, there is truth to that association.

But exercise is pretty hopeless when it comes to losing weight. Before you castigate me, read on. There are people who do so much physical activity that they can’t help but lose weight. Athletes who train hours a day with intense and crazy regimens will undoubtedly need to eat more or drop hard won muscle from their frames. But for most of us, it would be better, from a dietary perspective, if we just didn’t consider the fact that we exercised, when and if we count calories or decide how much to eat.

There is a great article on Vox here that details a lot of what I’m telling you, and I won’t go into all of that here, but I will say, that it makes sense, both from an evolutionary perspective and from my own history of exercise and weight loss both.

Evolutionary Perspective:

It’s long been thought that when you exercise, your body will continue to burn calories at an accelerated rate into the day. That was one given theory as to why exercise can help with weight loss. But this does not make sense from an evolutionary perspective.

In the very old days, food was scarce. Our bodies try to store as much as possible, whenever we find it. That’s part of why we tend to crave both fat and carbohydrates, forms of energy that we can either store or use. Why would we have evolved to become less efficient with our calorie storage and use? Ever? It doesn’t really make sense. The current theory is that the opposite actually occurs. That the body will reduce caloric expenditure following exercise as a way to become MORE efficient. It tends to try to level us out so our expenditure remains the same day after day.

Which makes sense.

If we became less efficient with our calorie use and storage following an unsuccessful hunt, for example, then we would be in a worse place from which to hunt again, having depleted all that energy, and pulled too much from storage. If this happened too often, we would burn ourselves out. But consider the opposite. If we become more efficient, we will last longer, giving us more time to succeed at a hunt, or run away from a predator, or move the camp, or whatever.

My own history:

I’ve battled my weight, relatively successfully, for most of my life. I’m 6’1″, and weighed in at about 240 lbs in high school. I wasn’t particularly fit, either. That was my sophomore year. The next year, I started running, and I stopped eating as much. I dropped 40 lbs, and got down to 200 by my junior year. I thought it was the running, but really, I had reduced my eating by as much as 40%, so that likely had something to do with it. The fitness that came from running (and later lifting weights) was unmistakable, giving me increased endurance and strength in my martial arts training, something that had been flagging previously.

In college, I continued my fitness regimen, but ate whatever I wanted. It didn’t take long for me to get back up to 240, and even on up to 260. And I was training for my black belt at that time! I was working out at least two, sometimes three hours a day! I was fit, I could run, I could life, I could kick and punch, but I’d gotten a bit on the heavy side. Testing my body fat percentage showed me I was sitting at about 22% body fat. (Consider that healthy for men is between 10 and 18%, roughly.) I changed nothing but my eating, and dropped 45 lbs in 3 months, taking my body fat percentage down to 8%, and weighing in at about 215 lbs.

Any time that I feel the need to change my weight or body composition, I turn to eating. My exercise hasn’t changed.

HOWEVER!!!

Please exercise! There are so many benefits to exercise that do not include weight loss. These include improved cardiorespiratory performance, greater strength, agility, bone density, confidence, mood, reduced rates of depressed and heart disease, lowered cholesterol, blood sugar, less pain, and greater joy in life. And the list could go on.

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