How Exercise Indirectly Kept Me Fatter

In the previous post Walking Didn’t Lean Me Out, I explained how my getting lean was a result of diet alone and that exercise played no role in my losing 20 pounds of fat. The fat loss came from a change in nutrient composition and nutrient timing. In this post, I will explain how I exercised from college until recently¬†indirectly kept me fatter.

Before I go into my own story, I want to highlight two articles from opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin by John Cloud, which was published in Time Magazine in 2009 and Exercise Wont Make You Thin (Why Time Magazine Owes the Fitness Industry a Big Fat Apology) by Tom Venuto. I think there is valuable insight in both articles. My experience falls somewhere in between and doesn’t line up directly with either article.

Exercise holds benefit outside fat loss. So don’t think I’m advising not to exercise. I’m just questioning how valuable its role is in a fat loss program. My belief is the typical overweight person got that way not from a lack of movement or character flaw, but from a nutrient or hormonal disregulation that caused their appetite to increase and their body to store fat and conserve energy. Increasing movement doesn’t fix nutrient deficiencies. Adding a caloric deficit and extra energy demands to an already unhealthy body might not be the wisest approach to permanent fat loss. But I’m getting ahead of myself. In my next post, I will cover how my current exercise program maximizes fat loss potential with minimal increase in appetite.

Cardio Days

In 1989, I was relatively thin. Not as lean as I am now, but close to my ideal weight. I had yet to start strength training and was very much a Stick Boy. That year I trained for my first marathon. I ran all spring, summer and into the fall. When I wasn’t running, I was resting and eating.

Columbus Marathon 1992 – I’m the Stick Boy in the green shorts.

The exercise volume I was doing was stressful to my body and my body responded by increasing my appetite and moving less during my non-running period. John Cloud’s article refers to this as the Compensation Problem. It is also covered extensively in Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. The year before my leg was in a cast and I had minimal movement. My weight was constant between the cast year and the marathon year.

When winter came to Columbus in 1989, I stopped running. My appetite went down, but not initially and not back to a pre-running baseline. I gained fat that winter and into spring. When spring arrived, my activity level would increase and I might lose a few pounds, but I never got leaner than where I started. Then winter would come again, my activity would level would drop and weight gain would occur.

By the time I graduated from college, I had ran 2 marathons (both under 4 hours), loaded trucks at UPS and ran my own lawn care business, yet I was still carrying extra weight despite my young age and high activity level. I valued health and I wanted a greater level of fitness. Where was the problem? Personal trainers would point to my winter inactivity as the culprit and that is exactly what I did. I blamed winter and upon graduation, I moved to Florida and eventually California.

Strength Days

I eventually experienced too much pain running and switched my exercise over to just weight training. The more I lifted weights, the more hungry I got. This was cool though, because now I was trying to get huge. Feeding muscle growth, yeah buddy! As long as I was lifting weights, I could eat as much as my appetite wanted and I wouldn’t gain fat. In fact, after several weeks of continuous lifting, I’d start leaning out. Not a lot, but a little. No cardio necessary.

There was only one problem. It was next to impossible to go more than 2 months without some injury. My joints ached, my back hurt, my neck was stiff, I tore a finger muscle and even had wrist surgery. During my recovery periods, I could never down regulate my appetite. Even though my muscles were resting in a recliner, my stomach still thought I was pumping iron. I always gained fat during my recovery periods.

Exercising beyond my ability to recover resulted in a wrist surgery. During recovery, my appetite did not return to baseline.

The Appetite Disconnect

Why did my appetite stay elevated during periods of rest and recovery? My first thought is the body is trying to protect the host. Inflicting a high volume of exercise is energy demanding. The body’s goal is not to be shredded by Spring Break, but to survive future threats. One of those threats might be another season of training with even higher energy demands.

Then there is ghrelin. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone, which is made in the stomach. The more we expend energy, the stronger the ghrelin signal. That makes sense. Higher activity will often result in more habitual eating patterns at higher caloric levels. Our excessive exercise trains ghrelin to respond more aggressively. When we are sidelined, these signals don’t suddenly stop. This is one reason why Intermittent Fasting can be so effective for fat loss. It trains the hunger hormone ghrelin to quieten itself during fasting periods.

Putting It All Together

Although in the short term, it appeared at times that exercise helped me get leaner, when looked at over a longer time frame it didn’t. Exercise increased my appetite and as long as I kept exercising my weight was in check. However, whenever volume increased past my body’s ability to recover, I was sidelined. During the periods of being sidelined, my appetite always exceeded activity and fat gain occurred.

Unfortunately, we are bombarded with messages from young mesomorphic trainers that we need to exercise more to lose weight. If you are otherwise extremely healthy and you have superior recoverability skills, they may be right. The rest of us need to be smarter if we are going to leverage exercise in a way that maximizes fat loss potential while minimizing appetite and injuries. Understanding this concept was the genesis of the Minimal Effort Approach. That will be the topic of my next post.


Add yours

  1. Glenn Whitney

    Apr 8, 2012 — 10:55 am

    This makes a lot of sense.

    Some coaches point out that if an athlete risks over-training, either they cut back in the nick of time and get some rest or the body rebels, gets injured and then rest becomes mandatory.

    In my opinion for many people it’s not so much about over-training, but *under* eating and *under* sleeping.

  2. @Glenn – I think you will like Part 3. I’ll be using 2 ideas from you.

  3. I have done lots of research like you, Michael. I also tried everything I read about, diet-wise and exercise-wise. I mean I tried everything. Cardio, walking, yoga, pilates, a little weight training (which caused some injuries) and nothing leaned me out even though I was eating a fairly healthy diet. I am a 61 years old female, so this must be taken into account, I suppose, but the only thing that leaned me out was IF. I was not overweight before I started, just heavier than I thought I should be. I have not lost that much weight, about 10 lbs., but it is extraordinary when I look in the mirror these days. All the areas that I had accepted were always going to be chubby are not anymore. I lost weight in my hips, belly, and waist. I look totally different, and I feel good. I eat mostly paleo, but not exclusively, and I do cardio dance 3x/wk, with some yoga/pilates thrown in. Nothing extreme. I exercise to keep things in working order. I eat right and do IF to stay lean. I wish more people would realize the benefits of exercise do not particularly include weight loss. I work out with lots of fat women, and they stay fat.

  4. @Becky – Thanks for sharing your story. Unless you really enjoy cardio-dance, I would scrap it in favor of brief high intensity. Cardio is a strong appetite stimulant and stressful on the joints.

  5. Well, I have struggled to come up with some HIT that I would enjoy enough to stick with it. I do enjoy the cardio-dance, and it is low impact, but it is beginning to get a little boring. I have a chronic neck problem/injury that precludes me from being able to do a lot of things without re-injury. The increase in flexibility I get from Pilates/Yoga is very valuable at my age. Any suggestions for me to research or think about?

  6. @Becky – Stick with the yoga and seek out a HIT trainer to guide you through a few workouts. I too often have a stiff neck. I can do a HIT workout no problem.

    If money is really tight, look at the ebook Hillfit.

  7. Thanks, will do, and I appreciate it very much.

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