Below is an excerpt from Fit Body, Happy Joints: Episode 116 “Fear of gaining weight when doing less”.
I hear from so many people who feel like their bodies are no longer tolerating their calorie-torching fitness classes or routine. But they are afraid that if they stop, they will gain weight.
First off, I totally understand this fear. However, being more intentional with how you move and taking care of your body is so worth it.
When I went from overexercising and undereating, the first thing I changed was my exercise. I scaled way back. I truly did not see much of a change in my body composition.
But after a few months, I started fueling my body differently. I had seen a functional medicine doctor for my concerns. I had concerns about focusing, brain health, and my sleep issues.
She encouraged me to change some things about my nutrition. I really started fueling more. Prior to this, I was eating “clean”. Think lots of whole foods. But even though I was eating clean, I was unintentionally eating in a calorie surplus. Because of this, I started to gain some weight.
I want to note that I felt so much better. It was worth it to me to go through this period where I was giving my body some space to heal so I could start from a really solid foundation.
I think I was giving my body the fuel and nutrients to heal from years of abusing my body in my workouts.
It wasn’t until I started being more intentional with my eating and focused on a protein-rich diet that I truly changed my body composition. I gained muscle and lost fat.
This was because of my diet plus strength training-not solely because of my workout. It has to be in combination to be effective.
I have better body composition now than I ever have. I now do a lot less and focus on strength training workouts. In the past, I under ate and did endless cardio/calorie-torching workouts each week.
My hope is that you can move past this, too. It feels so much better and is more effective.
I’m going to give you guidance. But even if you gain a bit of weight, you can adjust and try again. Weight gain isn’t permanent.
If a bit of weight gain happens because you’re healing and tinkering with what’s going to be sustainable and effective for your body for the rest of your life, I truly think it’s worth it.
You have to consider what your goals truly are. Are your goals to “look good” at any cost?
What is that cost, exactly? Feeling broken down, potentially influencing reproductive and hormone health, accelerating aging…
Are those things worth it to you?
Like many, I listened to the fitness industry tout the benefits of high-intensity exercise and lifting heavy weights. And like many do, I took this advice overboard because I thought that was necessary to see results. I overdid it and felt the consequences.
I sometimes feel like I’m on this hill alone preaching the message that it doesn’t have to be so dogmatic. It doesn’t have to be this “strict protocol” that you can’t tweak or change or dial down to see amazing benefits.
I think so much of what we have been taught about fitness is behind the times.
I’m so glad I explored another possible solution. One in which fitness doesn’t have to take over your life. Not one that is a constant push-pull between improving body composition while sleeping like crap and hurting all over.
I’m on a little bit of a tangent here, but I just think a lot of this health optimization stuff is rooted in dogmatic, biased recommendations. Many of these recommendations are unrealistic for most people, potentially helping one area of their health while harming another.
I want to suggest that there’s another way. What if instead of throwing in the kitchen sink, we were choosy about how we put force through our bodies.
Instead of doing high repetitions of impact and jumping around in the pursuit of burning off our food, we were actually intentional with how and how much exercise we did.
What if that could build us a healthy, strong system that made us feel more balanced hormonally, helping with our cravings and sleep.
What could change if we focused on building more lean tissue? We could have faster, more robust metabolisms. We wouldn’t need to be on the downward spiral of eating less and less as we exercise away all our lean mass with endless cardio and undereating.
Think about the possibilities if we were thoughtful about how and how much we stressed certain parts of our body. We could consider giving those areas time to recover instead of beating up our bodies just to “get fitter.”
This is working with our physiology. When you do this, your outcomes will improve and you will feel better.
Exercise should not make you feel worse, fragile, or exhausted.
I remember having to bend over very carefully any time I picked up my laundry hamper or bent over to tie my shoe.
Like… what??? If I was “so fit,” but I had to be cautious about tying my shoe, was I really that “fit” or “healthy”?
Exercise should make you more robust, tolerant to your daily life, and energetic.
If you want to live your life feeling fresh, mobile, and strong, and (yes) even see better body composition changes, let’s stop using exercise as a tool to burn and start using it as a tool to build.
I want to explain what happens when you do less. And give you some tools to create a plan that’s more effective for you. If you are afraid of weight gain secondary to pulling back from your overly intense routine, this post is for you.
Let’s first talk about what we currently know about human energy expenditure (how we burn calories and use energy).
Your energy expenditure is divided into a few main buckets.
BMR, or basal metabolic rate, makes up the majority of your calorie burn. This percentage sits between 60-70% of your daily expenditure. It represents the amount of energy it would take to keep you alive if you were in a coma.
This number is higher the more mass you have. Therefore, the biggest way to keep your BMR high is to build lean mass.
Then you have the thermic effect of food. This is the energy it takes to digest food and create usable fuel for your cells. It makes up about 5-10% of your expenditure pie.
Next you non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT includes all the fidgeting, talking, typing, standing, walking around, etc. It makes up between 15-30%.
Then you have the resting metabolic rate of the brain. Although the brain is small in mass, it can require a lot of energy. It lands somewhere between 15-30%.
Finally, you have exercise. Exercise accounts for around 10% of your daily expenditure. This is a much smaller piece of the pie than people realize, often smaller than NEAT.
You can see that these are very wide ranges because they vary so much between each individual.
This is why trying to account for all of the calories you are burning in a day by tracking activity is so unreliable.
The best thing you can focus on in regards to exercise and your metabolism is increasing your lean mass. When you increase your lean mass (like muscle and bone through strength training) your BMR increases. When you increase your BMR, you burn more calories just to stay alive.
But here’s what trips people up: a lean-mass-focused workout program often doesn’t burn many calories. So people get afraid that if they burn less, they will gain weight.
We have also become so reliant on our fitness watches to measure if we’ve done enough activity or burned enough in our workouts.
Fitness watches tend to reward cardio over strength training.
But your fitness watch calculates calorie expenditure by using heart rate. It does not account for the amount of energy that it takes to heal muscle tissue following a workout or that your increased muscle mass will increase overall expenditure.
So the calories burned from a strength training session may be less according to your fitness watch. But it’s not a good representation of how that’s actually affecting your body composition.
Additionally, the way fitness trackers currently track calories burned is antiquated and highly inaccurate. It’s not their fault. They are using the technology that we currently have available: heart rate.
Here’s why this is not an accurate representation of the calories you’re actually burning:
As you increase activity, you may lose a little weight in the beginning because your body hasn’t adapted to the new increases yet.
But studies show that this weight loss is very limited. This is because your cardiovascular system increases in capacity, making you more efficient and burning less doing the same amount.
You will also have metabolic adaptations that increase mitochondrial density. This results in a more efficient energy-using system that burns less with the same amounts of activity.
Fitness watches are using an additive calorie expenditure approach, but newer studies on energy expenditure support a constrained model over an additive model.
This study followed over 300 participants in 5 different populations. They measured how many calories participants burn using the gold-standard for measuring expenditure: doubly-labeled water. (not a fitness watch!)
Doubly-labeled water is the most accurate way to measure calorie expenditure. In this process, participants drink water with certain isotopes. Researchers then measure certain changes in the urine to determine their calorie expenditure.
This study revealed that activity does increase your daily energy expenditure at lower levels. However, at higher levels, more activity does not increase your overall energy expenditure.
This supports the hypothesis that we constrain the amount of energy we burn.
When we burn more from movement and exercise, we borrow from the other buckets of energy expenditure: brain power, digestion, BMR processes like kidney function, and NEAT.
This keeps us within a window of calorie expenditure. There is not an endless upper limit.
I think many of you who are doing a lot of exercise are likely in this upper limit of calorie expenditure. So by doing less, you may not be burning fewer calories overall. In other words, you may have already hit that plateau and may just be putting unnecessary wear-and-tear on your body.
Let’s use an example.
Say your body, at its current mass, burns about 2,000 calories on average. This is your BMR plus all those other factors that I talked about earlier. It includes exercise, whether you do more or less.
Let’s say you do a “hard” workout one day and burn 800 calories according to your fitness watch.
Your fitness watch may say that you’ve burned 2,800 calories when it takes into account your BMR, NEAT, and exercise. In reality, the constrained energy expenditure model kicks in and you’re maybe only burning 2,200.
Because of your watch, you think “I can eat 2,500 calories today and still stay in a deficit.” When in reality, you may unknowingly be in a 300-calorie surplus.
Again, there is no way to track this precisely unless you’re using doubly-labeled water. And to my knowledge, this is not available in a non-research setting.
Here’s my point: let’s just stop tracking calories burned because it’s not reliable.
The key is doing enough so we can get positive adaptations like increased cardiovascular activity, mitochondrial density, and lean mass. But not doing so much that we wear our bodies down and diminish our nervous system’s ability to aid in recovery.
This is why you must separate weight loss from exercise. When you think about exercise as a weight loss tool, you will be inclined to focus on the wrong things.
You’ll focus on burning calories at all costs. You will likely prioritize workouts that degrade your joints and overstress your system.
You may lose lean mass because of a development of chronic inflammation and overuse. This decreases BMR, requiring you to include more activity and cut calories again as your body adapts to that new amount of activity (downward spiral).
If getting leaner is your goal, stop focusing on calories burned.
Here’s the bottom line: cutting back on exercise doesn’t make you gain weight, but a calorie surplus will. If you are worried about gaining weight, you’ll want to get more aware of how you’re eating.
You can do this by calculating your TDEE at the new level of exercise that you want to adopt. Then, focus on food awareness around that number. I teach you how to do this in Burnout Bootcamp.
When you have more responsibility for how and what you’re eating, you may see better body composition changes.
Additionally, when you stop exercising in ways that put lots of repetitive forces through your body without enough recovery, your inflammation will improve.
When you have chronic inflammation from a highly repetitive exercise routine, it actually blocks progress.
You exercise to try to burn off food. Let’s say you do a 60-minute bootcamp class where you’re doing lots of repetitive movements and burpees and sprints. You’re doing that type of routine 5-7 days/week.
Your body is getting a lot of stress. From a systemic standpoint, you’re getting lots of sympathetic nervous system activity and increasing stress hormones like cortisol. This triggers inflammation. From a local standpoint, you’re placing wear-and-tear through your joints, triggering inflammation.
Inflammation is a good thing if your body has enough time to clean it up.
But if you’re not giving your body time to heal, you begin to layer inflammation on top of inflammation. Your body can’t keep up.
This causes chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation will start to break down muscle tissue. This leads to a decreased BMR and can make you feel sore and tired and cranky all the time.
Check out this episode of Fit Body, Happy Joints for more of the technical side of this.
I cannot emphasize enough to stop viewing exercise as a way to increase your deficit and start viewing it as a tool to improve your overall lean mass.
You will feel better, see better results, and be able to sustain them.
If you’re struggling with this and need more guidance, sign up for Burnout Bootcamp. This program includes a workshop that goes more in-depth about this topic and helps you develop a plan for nutrition and exercise. It also includes 5 Evlo classes that you can keep forever and take over and over.
This program is for you if you’re not only afraid of doing less, but you’re also feeling burned out and like your current routine is unsustainable. I talk about body recomposition without overworking and burning yourself out. My goal is to help you achieve the results that you want and sustain them.
It truly will help walk you through a plan for the short term and for the long term for both exercise and nutrition.
If you’re in a place where you would like to maintain your current body composition with a routine that is less stressful, this program also would be really great for you.
Evlo members: this program is included in your membership. No need to sign up.
We can’t wait to see you in class.
Listen to Dr. Shannon Ritchey, PT, DPT as she integrates the most current literature with her experience as a fitness trainer to give you tangible takeaways to improve your fitness.
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