Why Cardio Doesn’t Work and What To Do About It

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There is indisputable evidence that cardiovascular exercise does little if anything to promote weight loss. You may be thinking, “How is that even possible? Exercise burns calories and calories make you fat.”

Although that is technically an accurate statement, it doesn’t change the fact that aerobic exercise has failed to promote weight loss in practically every study ever published on the subject. Let’s take some time and dive into why this may be and how to alter our lifestyle and exercise program to improve our results.

One of the listeners of the podcast wrote us about how she told her husband about how we claimed that aerobic exercise offers no benefit to weight loss efforts, her husband, who was a physician,  replied, “Well, that’s just one person’s opinion.” The fact is, however, this is not our opinion at all, this an indisputable fact based on numerous research studies published in peer reviewed journals. Opinion begins to enter the picture when we hypothesize about why this apparent contradiction occurs…

The Scientific Proof

For brevity purposes, I will limit the scientific proof to referenced bullet points. Any of the studies can be found in the Pubmed database, which is available for free at Pubmed.gov.

  • Study 1: 8-week study which tested diet only against diet plus 4 hours of weekly exercise. After 8 weeks, the exercise plus diet group lost the same amount of weight as the diet-only group. (Int J Obesity. 1987; 11(4):367-75)
  • Study 2: 12-week study which tested diet alone against diet plus 45 minutes of exercise 5 days a week. After 12 weeks there was no difference in weight loss between the diet only and diet plus exercise group. (Int J Sport Nutr. 1998 Sep: 8(3):213-222)
  • Study 3: 6-Month study, this time the diet plus exercise group exercised for 50 minutes 5 days per week…After 6 months there was no difference in weight or body fat between the two groups! (J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Jan 2)

This is just a sampling of the studies that prove that aerobic exercise does not appear to promote fat loss.

Seriously…What’s Going On Here?

During the course of evolution, each animal becomes adapted in such a way that helps them to survive against the biggest threat to their species. For some bugs, they adapted by taking on the shape of a stick in order to blend in with their surroundings among trees and bushes…

On the Discovery channel, I once saw a hermit crab pick up little shells, lick the shells, and stick the little shells to its back in order to blend in with sand…

On yet another Discovery episode, I know…I’m a geek, I once watched an octopus put a half of a coconut shell on its head and walk across the ocean’s floor…in fact, this species of octopus is called a coconut octopus because of this peculiar behavior.

The point is…the depths that nature goes to give each animal an arsenal of tools to defend themselves from the threats of their environment are nothing short of amazing.

Over the millennium, we have adapted to survive during famine. If we have a severe calorie debt, either by eating too little, burning too much, or both, then the body’s chemistry changes to become better at gathering, storing, and holding onto fat. Again…this is an indisputable fact.

Defying the Laws of Physics

As I mentioned earlier, the research suggests that if you diet and exercise, you will fare no better than if you dieted and watched TV for the 50 minutes each day that the other group was slaving away in the gym. How is that possible? It seems to defy the law of physics from which the calorie model of weight loss was forged.

Well, let’s start by saying that it doesn’t defy the laws of physics; they remain very much in tact. The problem is the calorie model was based on a closed system that doesn’t adapt…the body is not only adaptive, it attempts to predict the future.

The Body Doesn’t Care How You Look In a Bathing Suit

The truth is the body has two prime directives, keep you alive and propagate the species. How you look in a bathing suit is of no concern to the body. I guess an argument could be made that how good you look in a bathing suit plays to the propagation of the species but that’s a discussion for another time.

Many dieticians describe the fat on your body as a bank account of calories…in other words they view calories are your body’s “metabolic money”. I would disagree, the fat is more like a bank than a bank account; like a bank, your body doesn’t give money away, it lends it to you. In other words, it wants the money back. If you exercise, you borrow money from the bank and it expects to get that money paid back.

Pay It Back!

After you borrow calories from your body’s bank, it will compel you to return those calories by three methods:

  1. Stimulation of appetite
  2. Increases in fat storing hormones that will make it easier for you to save the calories
  3. Decrease in motivation to exercise

In other words, aerobic exercise, your body tries to enhance and potentate the return of those calories. This effect is exaggerated by the starvation response induced by dieting.

Pay Back Is Mostly a Subconscious Process

The brain would never think to give an important task such as protecting the body from starvation over to the conscious brain. In stead, when the brain perceives that calories have been lent via dieting or aerobic exercise, the subconscious brain kicks into action.

Without even consciously knowing it, you will sit more, move less, eat more, crave more, and store more.

Compensators & Non-Compensators – Muddy the Waters

Each person is chemically and genetically different, sometimes very different…

After researchers realized that aerobic exercise did not appear to promote weight loss above dieting alone, they set out to figure out why. It appeared that among the people in the studies, there were some people who ate more food in response to the exercise and some who didn’t. The researchers labeled these two groups “compensators” (meaning those that ate more in response to exercise) and “non-compensators” (those who did not eat more in response to exercise).

The compensators would not lose weight (and could even gain weight) and the non-compensators would lose weight with aerobic exercise because they wouldn’t feel hungrier in response to exercise.

This fascinating discovery suggests that we can’t make a blanket statement about aerobic exercise, we can only say that some people will respond to aerobic exercise while others will not.

What If I Am a Compensator?

If you find that you are hungrier after aerobic exercise or if you are observant enough to notices that you are more sedentary after exercise, then you need to become more focused and aware. You must take extreme action to make sure that you remain extra active in between exercise sessions and must be very good at controlling the calorie-creep that can lead to a weight loss plateau.

In addition, compensators may respond better to slower weight loss and lower calorie deficits. In other words, it may be better for you to have a calorie deficit of 250 calories rather than 1,000 calories. This can allow the fat burning to occur below the radar of the “compensatory engine”.

How to Apply This Information

  1. Don’t assume that you’re a compensator…Test it. Try aerobic exercise for a few weeks and see if it helps you to lose weight. During this time, pay attention to your eating habits. Are you hungrier? Do you have more cravings or exaggerated cravings?
  2. If you are a compensator, slow down your weight loss efforts. The trick for compensators is sneaking your weight loss under the body’s radar. This means eating more raw, unrefined food so that the body gets more food material with less calories. Don’t starve yourself, eat plenty of healthy food and keep your caloric deficit to a minimum.
  3. Try counting calories for a while. I am not a fan of calorie counting for most people, however, I think it can be helpful in people who are just starting out and those who are compensators. Use calorie counting as a way to calibrate your system to how much food you need to keep a small deficit without activating your compensatory appetite.

About the Author Dr. Ray Hinish

Dr. Ray Hinish is a nutritional pharmacist, certified personal trainer, & certified Lifestyle & Weight Management Coach. He currently practices in Baltimore, MD, where he owns and operates a wellness center and natural foods restaurant. His mission is to help folks to live their health potential so that they can pursue their passions with confidence and endless supplies of energy!

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