Exercise is unbelievably important for health and wellness….but it can’t overcome a bad diet. Exercise increases your BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) which helps regenerate your brain, it increases your memory and even helps stave off neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers. (1) Exercise also releases key neurotransmitters and has been proven to reduce depression and anxiety and help you sleep. (2) All of these benefits will help you live better, which is a good thing, because exercise also helps you live LONGER. The list goes on and on, to read more benefits of strength training in particular check out this guest post by personal trainer Elizabeth Hills. The short version on the importance of exercise is this: you should absolutely exercise, but doing it solely to lose weight is a fools errand.
Just as I saved you from the long version of why exercise is important, I will also save you from the long version of why the “calories in, calories out” diet paradigm is dead. Pretty much every Dr tells their overweight patients “eating a little less and working out a little more” will help them lose weight but if that were true we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic on our hands now would we?! Mark Hyman does an excellent job explaining it here and I highly recommend you take a moment to read it.
So now that I’ve crushed all your dreams that running on the treadmill and eating twinkies cancels each other out, what are you supposed to do to maintain a healthy weight? You need to switch your body into “fat burning” mode rather than “sugar burning” mode. Your body has two main sources of energy, one is fat which is used in ketone body form for energy and the other is carbs/sugar which your body uses in glucose form for energy. Our liver and muscle cells can only hold so much glucose until they are full and will not allow more to enter. Think of it like a bouncer for your cells that doesn’t let too many people into that popular crowded night club. When the bouncer turns the glucose away from the liver it goes to the muscles, when it’s turned away from the muscles the only place left for it to go is the fat cells for safe keeping. This cycle also increases your insulin resistance. The fat cells have no bouncer like the liver and muscles do and the fat cells don’t care how many crowded people are shoved into their club. This is because fat cell can actually expand. When you gain weight it’s not actually new fat cells, it’s your original cells that have expanded in size.
Rather than thinking of your metabolism’s ability to use these as black and white, one or the other, think of it as a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is the average American eating the SAD (Standard American Diet), this person must consume carbohydrates consistently throughout the day to maintain their energy or they get hangry, cranky, dizzy, and more. On the other end of the spectrum is a ketogenic diet, this person consumes almost no carbohydrates daily and their body runs entirely on ketone bodies, using exogenous (consumed) and endogenous (it’s own) fat sources for fuel. When the SAD eater consumes even a fraction more carbs than the body can utilize, it is stored as fat because the body has a limited ability to handle glucose as we just discussed. When the Keto eater (who mind you, doesn’t eat carbs) eats extra fat, it doesn’t matter, the body is adapted to burn the fat, and it just burns it right off. In the middle of these two extremes is the magical fat adapted zone. This is when your body does not NEED sugar to survive and is fully capable of running off of ketones yet it is also fully capable of metabolizing a bit of glucose without freaking out because it is insulin sensitive in this state, and not insulin resistant. In this case the bouncers will let the sugar in and it will be later utilized for fuel (and will not be stored as fat).
Now that we’ve established that too much glucose in your body causes weight gain, and we’ve established that we want to have a flexible, fat adapted metabolism that can handle a bit of glucose yet can also run seamlessly on fat without needing glucose….how do we get there? For starters, counting calories will NOT get you there. My post on “Why Health Coaches Don’t Count Calories – And What They Do Count” explains that a bit further. In all honesty it is incredibly complex and includes considering issues such as past metabolic damage, genetics, hormones like cortisol, leptin and ghrelin, food sensitivities and much much more. Again we’ll skip to the short version for the sake of brevity here: you need to work to find your body’s optimal macronutrient breakdown to become fat adapted. Macronutrients are fat, carbohydrates, and protein. I do not care about calories and if you want to know why make sure you check out Mark Hyman’s blog post on it linked above. For some people optimal macros means you’ll need to maintain a very low carb diet under 50 grams a day to stay in that zone, and for others you may be able to have up to 150 grams a day and stay in the zone. The key is to begin to PAY ATTENTION to your macros and see how your body responds to. You want to get to a place where you don’t NEED to eat every few hours to keep from feeling shaky and tired (this signifies blood sugar stability). You want to get to a place where you don’t gain weight just from looking at a slice of bread (this signifies your insulin sensitivity has been restored to it’s normal function from a previously damaged state of insulin resistance). You’ll want to feel like you have good solid energy throughout the day (this signifies that your body is utilizing the energy sources you are providing it, whether it is fat or glucose from sugar or carbs)
This is a huge part of what I do with clients on an individual basis. I work to help them find their ideal macro breakdown, troubleshoot how to get the most nutrient density out of their diet, and find what might be holding back their metabolism and fix it. That doesn’t mean you can’t get started on your own right now though. Download My Fitness Pal app and start keeping track of your macro breakdown and start tweaking to make it work for your body.
Keep working out, it is amazing for you, but don’t rely on it for weight loss, only a well regulated metabolism that is fat adapted can truly help you burn off those fat stores you’re holding on to hoping to “run” off. Good luck and feel free to reach out with any questions!