Many people wonder if exercising actually leads to weight loss. The answer is no, if you’re an office worker reading this on your laptop. However, for professional athletes or people who train like one, the answer is yes. This does not include sportsmen by default, as we see many sportsmen these days carrying fat around, even professional athletes whose main requirement is to train hard.
It may be shocking, but exercise alone doesn’t make you burn extra calories. As a sports scientist with experience working with over 500 athletes across various sports, as well as office workers for fitness, weight loss, and nutrition, I can explain this further.
While exercise does burn calories, it also increases hunger and appetite, leading to overcompensation and ultimately a neutral or negative effect on weight loss. Instead, weight loss is achieved through a combination of healthy eating habits and a caloric deficit. Exercise can aid in weight loss by increasing muscle mass, which in turn increases metabolism and burns more calories at rest.
In summary, exercise alone is not enough for weight loss. A combination of healthy eating habits and a caloric deficit is necessary for weight loss, with exercise playing a supporting role in building muscle mass and increasing metabolism.
Total burn = Total Budget = Work carried out by 37 trillion cells at various sites
Our muscles are just one component of our total energy expenditure. While we may have a basic understanding of this, our total calorie burn can only be altered significantly by striving for it like an athlete.
The total calorie burn comprises of the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) plus the extra calories burned through activities throughout the day, which is typically 1.5 times BMR. BMR (the amount of calories burned by the body at rest) is roughly similar in everyone but highly individualistic genetically. We add to this with extra activities like movement, mental work, food digestion, and physical work. Even the processing of converting glycogen to glucose to meet energy demands burns calories. Or transporting fat from adipocytes for usage burns calories.
Contrary to popular belief, we can’t burn as many calories as we want just by exercising. We have a set calorie budget, and no matter what we do, we more or less stay within that budget. Our bodies can adapt to variable eating, extra stress on some days, or additional exercise on others.
Although our muscles contribute to only 16% of BMR while the brain accounts for 20%, we can burn more calories by exercising and pushing our muscles to work harder. However, our overall calorie burn also relies on other mechanisms unless we maintain constant stress on the system.
Having said that, it’s important to note that we can achieve any level of calorie burn we desire, but it requires effort. Athletes who consume up to 8,000 calories can remain lean, fat-free, and fit, whereas we may consume only 2,500 calories.
It is difficult to achieve extra burn via our musculoskeletal system because it requires a continuous threshold that is not sustainable in our daily lives. Going beyond this threshold can tire our system more than usual, requiring more nutrition, healing, and repair work. This is not possible for many people in their day-to-day lives, unlike professional athletes who only focus on training. Stressing the system with exercises while ensuring the body doesn’t get adapted is an art known to few.
While I can do it easily, it requires proper training and a check on diet, or both, to build up to a level where I can enjoy life without gaining weight or worrying about my health. Our body keeps us in check when we understand some key elements of a healthy lifestyle.
To provide an analogy, new car tires can increase a car’s mileage from 15km/liter to 17 or 18, but not to 20, 30, or 40km/liter. Similarly, while exercising can increase our calorie burn by a little, such as from 150 to 200 calories, this has little effect on weight loss because our body adjusts to these changes in the absence of persistent stress. Our system adjusts for a bit extra or less in our total consumption of approximately 2500 calories per day.
BUT just like new tyre’s in car, it facilitates health at many different places.
Dr. Herman Pontzer and his colleagues conducted a remarkable study where they found that the total calorie consumption of a hunter-gatherer population was the same as an office worker living in Washington, D.C., despite their burn seeming to be five times less than the hunters. The research emphasizes the importance of all food substrates, including carbs, fats, and protein. The study highlights the significance of honey as the main meal, which is a highly mixed diet. Lastly, the research provides evidence supporting the concept of quality/raw food over processed food.
In the absence of food availability and any junk or oils, both ill effects of sugar (honey) would not be a concern. The high blood glucose level cannot be an issue because the hunter-gatherers move so much, and their bodies burn glucose. Similarly, fructose would not have any adverse effects, such as slowing down metabolism and satiety effects, as our bodies have a well-established process to metabolize fructose for energy. They burn fructose just like glucose.
I have questioned this many years ago, but people ignored it. I guess I was too early again! I ran a camp in the mountains for a season to conduct my study on running biomechanics, train runners, and organize yoga retreats. Besides, I have been a regular adventure traveler to the hills. I noticed that river rafting guides slogged their arses to push a raft through the currents, burning humongous amounts of calories. Similarly, my workers at camp would run all day up and down the hills, burning their quads and calves like no other athlete. They ate home-cooked food, which included more rice than us, but overall, their diet was not much different from ours, considering our snacking habits, etc. Their plates always looked bigger, but calorie per calorie, my guests consumed more than them (add snacking). They walked long distances in the mountains most of their lives, and yet their burn was and is the same.
Their burn is easily 2/3 times more than visitors. Despite this, we see bellies (fat climbing on them) in almost all of them as they cross 40 or something.
HOW? WHY? If burn is everything then they are doing it more than required?
Caveat – Let’s assume that we have a total calorie budget of 2500 calories for Indians. When people live hard lives like those I described earlier, it may seem challenging from the perspective of someone living in the city. Although they appear to be doing a lot of hard work, their physical activity has actually decreased significantly, and the quality of their food may have been compromised.
However, for those living that lifestyle, it is their daily routine, and their bodies become accustomed to it, adjusting their calorie burn at all levels. Adaptation!! Nevertheless, if I were to put them in a swimming program and train them for a month, they would end up losing a significant amount of weight very quickly. Why? Because although their legs are used to the stress of their daily routine, they are not used to performing different tasks that require their body to move in a different way, resulting in increased calorie burn. Just like how my body aches when I go for a swim once in a while or play a sport like badminton once every few years. It’s not because I lack fitness, but rather because my body is not used to the stress that these kinetic movements demand. Our body has a way of telling us about stress, provided we know how to read into it.
Let me help you understand this with a couple of analogies:
Suppose you start running 5 km/day in the park, and you burn 200 calories the first day. Suppose you maintain this average for six months, a year, or even a decade. What happens to your calorie burn? It decreases once your body becomes adapted to the stress. You will now burn fewer than 200 calories for the same task. Therefore, you have to increase the distance or effort in terms of speed (vary it) to burn more calories. It doesn’t mean that running 5 km/day is not beneficial. It is beneficial for overall health, just not for weight loss.
Or suppose you start exercising, walking, weight lifting, or doing yoga, and you feel the effects in the first few months, losing some weight (if overweight), but then it plateaus. Eating the same small meal and doing the same daily activity no longer produces the same results. Again, it doesn’t mean that you are not doing good for your health. It just means that it is not sufficient for weight loss.
Q: What do you think happens with healthy cricketers/sportsmen who stay bulky most of their career?
A: It’s likely because they continue to eat and exercise the same way. This approach may work initially, but eventually, the body adapts to the stress and stops burning as many calories. To achieve sustained weight loss, both training and diet need to be optimized. I have worked with athletes and squeezed them for 3-4 weeks, and the results have been impressive when both training and diet are addressed. Even just training alone can help shed a couple of kilos, but significant weight loss requires a focus on nutrition, sequencing, and timing of food.
It’s also worth noting that even people living in ashrams, where they eat a well-balanced, healthy, and unprocessed diet, can gain fat. This is because the total caloric intake still matters, even if the food is nutritious and unprocessed.
Q: Do you know that even the timing of a food substrate can have a significant effect? Have you heard that the sequence of food substrates, and how you eat, can make a difference?
The slide above simplifies the mechanism of production of fuel/energy from different food sources. Our body is intelligent and adjusts the burn rate based on the type of food consumed and our body state at the cellular level. It conserves energy when there is less coming in and increases the burn rate when there is more. As a result, a few days of overindulging in our favorite foods or eating at a wedding won’t cause significant weight gain. However, persistent overfeeding or constant stress is required to have a significant impact on our body.
To challenge our body, we need to find exercises that push us out of our comfort zone. However, this is not always easy, as different sports require specific movement nuances. For example, a fast bowling in cricket might seem like a walk in the park for fast bowlers, but for a non-bowler, it’s a challenging task. This is why even fast bowlers can pile on kilos while playing.
I find it shocking when people blame injuries on load rather than the fact that the body has not been adequately prepared for the task. A fast bowler’s body is adapted to bowling, and it should not cause injuries while doing so. However, if we don’t train our bodies appropriately, we risk injuries.
In summary, a morning gym visit does not justify having beer and chips in the evening, and a walk does not allow us to indulge in tea, biscuits, or dessert. To maintain a healthy weight, we need to eat whole foods, reduce our sugar intake, and find the right quantity of food that suits our body.
Finally, exercise is essential for our overall health and offers several benefits beyond calorie burning. It can even change our genetics. I believe exercise is the driver of health, and it can improve our quality of life in numerous ways.