Is Your Exercise Keeping You Fat?

One of the things I covered in my biggest workout mistakes post is the fact that many people work out way too much. What I mean by this is when you do activities for the sake of a goal (say losing fat), and you think more is better…..well you can actually be doing more harm than good. I have consulted with so many people who are not getting results just based on their level of exercise activity is too much for them. Once they finally get that under control then they start seeing results again. Remember it’s all about quality of what you do, not quantity. Let’s look at the real problems and solutions for people of all goals.

Excess aerobic activity will make you store more fat

WIth excess aerobic activity comes the increase in the hormone cortisol. As this rises so does your body’s blood sugar, in a sense you are actually going to start creating more insulin because of this. More insulin means more insulin resistance. More insulin resistance means more fat storing down the road. Although you may think you are burning fat, you may just be losing muscle and then storing more in places that will be hard to get off later. I can’t tell you how many “skinny joggers” I have seen that are low weight but high body fat % in the wrong places (men typically in the stomach, women in the hips and butt). You can see many “non-professional” (and note I use the word non-professional because to think you are in the same league with these people with their overall training and nutrition program is like comparing apples to sharks) endurance people that are carrying around extra weight in the wrong places. (look at your aerobic instructors, most are also carrying around a higher BF % ).

Doing the same intensity aerobic conditioning will make you more efficient at burning calories at that pace

Ask yourself, if your goal is to burn fat….why would you ever want to become more efficient at it? In fact, you probably want to become very inefficient at it so you always burn up the maximum amount. Steady state cardio type activity will allow your body to adapt and become smarter in how it uses it’s fuel. Think of it like driving a car, which uses up more gas….city stop and go traffic while slamming down the accelerator…or cruising along the highway at 65 with the overdrive on?

If you want to burn fat, it is still a hormonal event

You can’t outsmart your fat cells, it won’t happen. What you can do is give them the right hormonal signals to release Fatty Acids into the bloodstream so you can use them in the muscle as fuel. What are the biggest hormones involved? Glucagon (and it’s counterpart Insulin), GH and Catecholamines (the most popular being epinephrine/adrenaline and norepinephrine/noradrenaline). These messengers can trigger fat cells to release free fatty acids (FFAs) into the bloodstream to be used up for energy. Insulin however can put a hault to the process and signal the fat cells to go into storing mode, not releasing. So the key factors to remember for burning fat is to keep glucagon high, insulin low and use bursts of GH and catacholamines to get those FFAs burned up. You can burn fat all day long, if you tell your body to do it.

Most people wanting to put on muscle size workout way too much

Muscle does NOT grow in the gym. Keep telling yourself that. If you want to put on serious size and muscle you probably need to do 2 things, workout less and eat more. Working out more will just lead you to the same body you have now year after year. Stop reading about those workouts in magazines so called professional bodybuilders do. Most do not, and you are also not getting the same “hormonal” help most of them are. Unless you are taking extra “hormones” and eating 2g/lb of lean mass in protein, then there is no reason you should be lifting any more than 2-3x a week. In fact I say stick with 2x and just eat healthy. If you can not gain muscle lifting hard 2x a week and eating then something is wrong. Also, if you do not eat enough don’t plan on your body telling it to start building more muscle.

Remember WHY you workout

I mean most of us workout to lose weight, build muscle, or just be healthier right? So what good is it if we are doing all the wrong things and getting no results down the road? If you want to be a professional athlete that is one thing, but if you are like most of us and just want your body to look and feel better then we need to do all right things. More is not always better, smart is better. If you are not getting results, then you need to stop what you are doing and change it up. Continuing down the same road expecting different results is what some might call insanity.

Enjoy what you do, make it a lifestyle

You can still go for a run (I enjoy trial running…as seen in my post on nature’s plan on how to run), ride your bike (I also enjoy mountain biking), go swimming, play tennis, or whatever you enjoy. Just don’t over do it. Most of my activities are usually 30-45min max and I make sure I don’t feel absolutely bonked when I am done (unless I plan on eating a big feast right after). If I do something longer it is usually at a slower pace like hiking. There are many things we can do and go out and enjoy in life, but to do higher durations of aerobic activity thinking that it burns more fat is just not understanding how the body works. Do you need activity? Sure you do. Do you have to kill yourself in the process? Of course not. That and focus on what you eat, as 85%+ of your fat loss comes from the calories you eat and the hormonal signals given off by your food.

So to sum up….want to burn fat? Then do the following:

Workout with weights 2-3x a week, or do bodyweight resistance exercises. You need to challenge your muscles and keep them around (use it or lose it). With muscles comes more fat burning furnaces, as fat is burned in the muscle….and if you lose muscle you also lose more fat burning furnaces. There is a reason people with muscle do little aerobic exercise and still keep lean.

Stop doing “excessive” cardio trying to get fat loss. Honestly do you even know if you are burning fat or glycogen at that point? You don’t. While activity is important it must be balanced with what you are eating and your hormonal signals. I enjoy my activities, but maybe only a couple times a week. It’s important to be active daily but it is also important not to over do it, keep it at 30-40min max depending on your intensity. This is not to say to not do anything, just do it correctly and not all the time and you will get results. That and focus on where most of the results come from anyways, what you eat!

Intervals/Intensity programming works for a reason. This will get those Catecholamines and GH going to release more FFAs. You don’t want to overdo this either, but about 10min (15 max) of intervals or intense lifting above the lactate threshold will get the hormones up. From there you can keep going with lower intensity activity knowing you are burning more fat and without putting yourself into a state of overtraining and excess cortisol release. In fact it may be more advantageous to do repeated bursts of smaller intense activities throughout the day rather than one big longer one when it comes to fat loss and GH response (since GH comes in temporary pulses and you can now spread multiple pulses throughout the day…and we know that we can burn fat all day long right?).

Stop calling it cardio and make it a lifestyle activity. Enjoy what you do and don’t do it at the same pace. Go run a trail but stop when you need to (I usually sprint hills, walk a bit, sprint, walk…never one steady pace). Do different activities, go dancing, rollerblading, hiking, running, swimming, canoeing….mix it up and your body will never get bored (and efficient at burning calories).

Get your Sleep. If you don’t get to bed early or sleep enough you are setting yourself up for increased cortisol, messed up GH cycles (your biggest release is in the first couple hours of sleep, but can be lower the later you go to bed), and overall increasing insulin resistance and decreasing immune system. Not a good thing. Get your sleep and you will make a better fat burning machine. Stay up late and you will see more cravings for carbohydrates and sugars, which are not the road to fat loss (including the fact that high insulin levels before bed will lower the GH response during beginning stages of sleep).

Get rid of Sugar and Processed Carbs – Insulin goes up, then fat burning shuts down. Simple as that. Glucagon goes down (fat releasing hormone) when Insulin rises. Keep your insulin lowered and your glucagon higher, then you can burn fat more often. Most importantly, NEVER have it right before bed….that is unless you don’t want GH released.

Stop Stressing Out – Keep your cortisol under control, to keep your insulin at bay. We all know stress is not a good thing when overdone or chronic, and guess what exercise is a stress. So keep your exercise under control or suffer the consequences. (tip try adding in some Vit C around workouts too, may help to control cortisol levels). Also by increasing chronic cortisol output you will eventually burn out the organ it comes from, the adrenal glands. Guess what that gland also produces, Catecholamines….you know those hormones that can help increase FFA release. So burned out your adrenal gland and you lower some of your fat burning hormones in the process. Not a good trade off.

Further Reading: Mark Sisson a former “milage king” gives his case against chronic cardio here.

photo by ario_j

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