Ahhh! The age-old questions in the realm of dieting for fat loss…
“Do I need to work out more to lose weight?”
“Can I lose weight without increasing training?”
“How does exercise fit into my goals!?”
98% of the time, WAG clients come to us wanting to lose a bit of body fat, perform better in their workouts, look better naked, and feel more alive and aware of their bodies.
We hear all the time: "I workout… and I want to look like I workout!”
In this space, it’s common to hear a myriad of opinions and answers to the question “Do I need to work out more to lose weight?” and about how training can affect weight loss goals. Today, we’re tackling that question.
Why is There Confusion about Working Out More to Lose Weight?
On an elementary level, it makes sense that more training would lead to more fat loss, right? Let’s dig into why this may not always be the case.
Calories In, Calories Out
The simple calories in, calories out equation tells us that If you burn more calories, you create a larger deficit, and results “should” appear more quickly. But, because of more nuanced nutrition topics (like metabolism), that age-old equation doesn’t always work, and a larger deficit doesn't always lead to more timely results.
There is a general tendency to overestimate the effects of training on fat loss and underestimate the effects of nutrition on that same goal. This misestimation is also the function of incomplete information in the health space. More exercise is an easier sell and easier commitment than more awareness of your nutrition.
Let’s be honest: dietary changes aren’t as fun as a full-throttle CrossFit class. “Do this workout for 30 days and experience miraculous results” sounds much better than, “Track how certain foods and their respective quantities affect your body.”
One requires a lifetime of awareness, the other requires a couple of hours per week. This is why so many people succeed when focusing on their nutrition with a 1:1 coach.
Someone who is brand new to resistance training will get results from just exercising, but it doesn’t last long or work nearly as well for well-trained individuals. #newbiegains are real.
Fat loss is about 80% nutritional habits and 20% training. Abs really are made in the kitchen.
The big question that remains is WHY abs are made in the kitchen and WHY sticking to a methodical training plan without “adding more to speed fat loss” leads to greater (and quicker!) results.
The answer is multifold.
Underexercising and Weight Loss
Exercise is like a drug.
Much like a drug, there is the right dose, an underdose, and an overdose. Something that is designed to help you can be destructive in incorrect amounts.
For someone who is chronically underdosing (aka, not getting enough) exercise, funky things start to happen with hunger and mindset when exercise increases.
Without dietary awareness or practice recognizing hunger cues, many people end up drastically increasing food consumption when they begin exercising because of increased appetite and inaccurate estimations of calorie burn.
While this may lead to more muscle building (depending on their macro—especially protein—intake), it also comes at a cost of potential fat gain and eliminates the desired response of inducing fat loss and “leaning out.”
Many people also overestimate how many calories they burn during exercise. So, it is common for these people to tell themselves, “I’ll eat more because I exercised today,” and then overeat.
That being said, these are usually the only individuals who will experience a positive change in fat loss by training more when diet is accounted for.
If this is you, Make a small change. Work out twice per week at 85% intensity. Track your nutrition. See how your body changes!
Overexercising and Weight Loss
The most common thing we see at WAG is clients wanting to go from adequate exercise intensity and frequency to overexercising to speed up weight loss.
If some is good, more must be better, right?
Not so much.
Overexercising causes its own unique set of problems. While at its core, calories in versus calories out is a self-evident truth, in the fitness industry, we tend to underestimate the body’s ability to self-regulate its metabolism.
“Calories out” isn’t only defined by what you burn in the gym. It’s also what your body burns to stay alive and during everyday activities.
Your body is a beautiful, smart, efficient machine that works hard to keep you alive all day long. It doesn’t like being in a caloric deficit, especially a big one. It isn’t advantageous for survival.
Thus, an excessive caloric deficit caused by an overdose in exercise and/or very low calories can cause [1,2]…
- A lower basal metabolic rate decreases healthy sex drives, organ health, and basic body processes.
- A decreased resting metabolic rate which will leave you feeling sluggish while at work or too tired to take care of your children.
- It will cause a stress response that ramps up cortisol levels, decreasing sleep quality and blocking the mobilization of your fat cells for energy.
- Slower (or completely stalled) weight loss.
With great coaching, we can isolate this issue and fix it!
For the average person, these signs put together—and the general slowing of fat loss as a result—makes them feel like they need to exercise more. This exacerbates the issue and can cause a destructive yo-yo dieting and injury cycle.
For individuals who are already training five times per week, increasing exercise usually won’t help you lose more weight. In fact, exercise overdose and the resulting destructive loop can have the opposite effect and cause a lot of frustration in the process.
Exercise Style Matters
Depending on your goals, the answer may not be to exercise more. The answer may be to exercise differently.
How Much Should You Exercise?
If you’re already exercising 4-5 times per week and your exercise complements your goals, you’ll get more bang for your effort buck if you focus on your nutrition instead of spinning your wheels at the gym.
Be patient, seek the advice of a nutrition coach who can support you mentally and physically, and remember that you’re not alone! Many people have been where you are—including many of the people we’ve worked with and continue to work with at Working Against Gravity.
It takes time and effort to reverse the “more = better” mindset, but it is possible with time, effort, and guidance. Give your body time to prove it to you by sticking with your training and nutrition plan to focus on fueling your body.
- Donnelly, J. E., Pronk, N. P., Jacobsen, D. J., & Jakicic, J. M. (1991). Effects of a very-low-calorie-diet and physical-training regimens on body composition and resting metabolic rate in obese females. Am J of Clin Nutr., 54(1), 56-61. doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/54.1.56
- Connolly, J., Romano, T., & Patruno, M. (1999). Effects of dieting and exercise on resting metabolic rate and implications for weight management. Family Practice, 16(2), 196-201. doi.org/10.1093/fampra/16.2.196