My Response to the Exercise and Overeating Study

How is that for odd timing? A day after I completed my 5 part series on the role of exercise and fat loss, a widely reported study on the same topic surfaces. The short summary is that not everyone loses weight exercising and some people actually overeat to compensate for increased energy demands. Sound familiar? Whole Health Source did a summary of the study titled Exercise and Food Intake which discussed the individual variability.

The study ties in food reward to exercise, which is a topic I was thinking about when I wrote my series. I look forward to seeing what researchers learn in further studies, however I did have some issues with the study as it applied to fat loss.

  1. Their test involved doing 60 minutes of aerobic exercise on a cycle. No surprise that it was ineffective for many. Intervals and weight training would have been a better test.
  2. The test only used young healthy individuals (Age = 22.2 0.7). Young people recover faster from exercise and tend to have less health problems.
  3. The test was only 12 weeks long. I have gone many 12 week periods in my life where exercise helped me get leaner. However, when you stand far enough back and look at much longer time periods, those benefits disappear. The reason is our appetite rises to meet energy needs. We can’t keep exercising at an ever increasing volume or intensity. We are human. We get hurt, sick or get sidelined with life’s interruptions. During the down periods, appetite does not return to baseline. It stays elevated. The fat we lost during our exercise interval comes back. It is a survival strategy the brain uses to prepare for an environment with periods of high energy demands. BTW, I am not a scientist, but I have examined 20 years of my own exercise experiences to arrive at this conclusion.

Photo by Mark Stosberg. Can I ride up front? 🙂

As much as I agree with the headline of the study, once I got into the details, I found it useless. We all aren’t 22 years old. Long duration aerobic exercise is highly stressful to our bodies and hormones. And most importantly, 12 weeks is no where near enough time to make a conclusion on the role exercise has on fat loss. Bodybuilders know how to exercise to get super lean in weeks, but those gains are unsustainable for long periods of time.

I believe the key to leveraging exercising for fat loss is to do highly intense brief exercises, followed by rest periods that allow the body to recover fully and ideally quickly.


Add yours

  1. Stuart Gilbert

    Apr 17, 2012 — 3:00 pm

    I think the conclusions made in this post are valid and well thought out…it would be interesting to see such research done from the recommendations made here….

  2. Stuart Gilbert

    Apr 17, 2012 — 3:03 pm

    I still feel that frequent low level movement has a place amongst all the HIT stuff though…although the cat doesn’t think so…she sits in the sun or is asleep most of the time…and she’s quite lean… both mammals but different species eh?…lol

  3. @Stuart – I think the cat is right. The bias is towards less.

  4. I’ve really enjoyed your latest series MAS! It’s incredible to think just how wrong what ‘everybody knows’ about exercise and health is.

    I remember back to track and X-county in college and there were people who were running the same 50-100 miles per week plus pretty intense intervals who still had a gut or a big ass, while most of us were really lean in a sport that selects for leanness. It never even occurred to me that we all weren’t at the absolute pinnacle of health with all the running we were doing, but somehow that never made me rethink my basic premise and I’d always just suggest people take up running for health and weight loss. If being able to run under 4:20 for a mile isn’t enough to get you lean, then maybe the running isn’t the thing for everybody.

    Related but off this topic: In Body by Science McGuff talks about how people looking to lose weight lost more fat and retained more muscle doing a big 2 than people doing a big 3 (both coming from a big 5). His hypothesis was that there is a certain amount of recomposition ability our bodies have and if we’re losing a lot of fat then there isn’t a lot left for building muscle- thus a less powerful exercise signal made more sense for these kinds of people since they needed their recovery abilities to deal with fat loss.

    I wonder if the same principal applies to muscle gain as well? I’ve never tried it myself and I already have to force myself to stay out of the weight room for my once a week workout, but what if an intense couple of sets more infrequently provide enough recovery resources to actually build up muscle?

  5. @Karl – Glad you liked the series.

    Somehow in my 3 readings of BBS, I missed that point about Big 2 being better than the Big 3 for fat loss. Dr. McGuff owns an exercise facility and collects a lot of data, so I don’t question his advice. It sounds like it falls in line with my “exercise less”, especially when it comes to fat loss.

    There was a follow-up book to BBS that answered questions. I haven’t read it, but it may be in there.

    As for muscle gain, my only client is myself. The same over training that caused me to be sidelined to gain fat, also caused me to lose strength during down periods, but only long down periods. I was able to retain strength longer during rest than leanness.

    With exercise questions, you will never be able to research your way to the correct answer. There is simply too many variables. Experiment and collect data. A lot of the approaches I take for fitness and nutrition are based upon principles I learned in finance. I have an idea of where I want to be, my risk tolerance, but I assume incomplete knowledge.

  6. Hi Chris – I stumbled upon your website as I was looking for new ways of eating/living. I’v been a chronic fad dieter (up and down the same 20 pounds many times) and exerciser. I’m tired of all of it, and found many of your experiences similar to my own. I actually gained weight while training for a marathon. My recent stint as a vegan had similar results. While I enjoy reading your blog and will continue to do so, I was wondering if you could suggest a similar blog written by a female. I’d like to see a woman’s perspective on this type of lifestyle. Thanks!

  7. So sorry! I was talking to someone in the other room who said Chris and just realized that is what I typed – Michael. Your blog clearly states that your name is Michael -oops!

  8. @Abby – There are a lot of female bloggers that are similar to me in nutrition. I would say I am somewhere between CheeseSlave and ThePrimalSexy when it comes to food.

    However, I don’t know of a single woman blogger that shares my views on exercise. Heck, most men in fitness don’t share my views. The economics of fitness rewards volume over intensity.

  9. @MAS,

    I really like your approach to diet and training questions. I agree completely with what you wrote above. It’s frustrating that there aren’t any simple answers, but it certainly makes things more interesting!

    That fat loss study in BBS is on page 196 “A consuming Fat-Loss Study”. It looks like that section was written by John Little. McGuff did write very favorably about the study in the Q&A book as a follow up, basically saying that he thought the conclusions were valid despite it not being done in a research setting.

  10. @Karl – Thanks for the page number. Yesterday I read just before it and then jumped right past it. The conclusions make total sense to me. My guess is as the athlete gets older, those variations would widen further as recovery times increase.

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