The “Truth” About Exercise

First, I have some bad news: exercise is rather bad at creating weight loss in absence of dietary interventions. And if you want more proof, there’s this, and this, and this, and more if you care to look. However you should notice that all of those studies indicate positive metabolic outcomes in spite of the lack of fat loss. It’s something I tell my clients all the time: exercise is the great optimizer. It accelerates fat loss when your calories are in check, and it reduces the rate of gain when they’re not by improving the nutrient partitioning of those excess calories via hormonal mechanisms. Exercise can also do what drugs and diet cannot and this is the important part. First, more bad news: our genetics have long ago determined performance outcomes of any exercise we do. Really.

In the BBC documentary “The Truth About Exercise” we get to see how much our genetics determine improvements to our fitness:

I’m an exercise science grad student and can attest to how little calories are burned during exercise. If it burned as many calories as people would like it to then going to the grocery store would render us exhausted before we made it to the diary case. Beyond that, many of the reasons people train (e.g. performance and cosmetic reasons) are genetically determined with little wiggle room…well, steroids can overcome some of this but it only moves the ceiling up a few feet. To see more studies from one of the main researchers, Dr. Timmons, see this, and this, and this.

However, and this is important, notice that the health outcomes improve independent of performance improvements. A 23% increase in insulin sensitivity, and a 15% increase in the rate of glucose clearance is a huge amount; there are Type-II diabetics with a cabinet full of drugs who haven’t gotten numbers that good. And yet, because of the healthcare model in this country and the litigious nature of our society, doctors won’t prescribe meaningful exercise as a treatment even if they would like to do so. Australia, it seems, doesn’t have that problem.

In the land of the Tall Poppies, exercise is now being prescribed as treatment for a variety of things we already knew it helped (osteoporosis, diabetes, cardiovascular function) and for a variety of things we’re just now learning it helps (cancer). I cannot embed the video so you’ll have to view it here.

So there it is: if you want fat loss, clean up your diet; if you want to improve every aspect of your physical self from atom to organism, train briefly, safely, and intensely.

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21 thoughts on “The “Truth” About Exercise

  1. Skyler,

    Another GREAT Post, we have this discussion with our clients all the time. I will be sending this to a number of our clients as reinforcement to what we tell them,

    Thanks for the post,

    Dwayne Wimmer
    Vertex Fitness

  2. Skyler, those are interesting links to articles looking at childhood physical activity and weight management. I don’t follow that literature routinely. For those who didn’t click through, a couple studies indicate that efforts to increase physical activity in will did not significantly impact weight.

    Someone might share that info with the U.S First Lady.

    -Steve

  3. Great post, Skyler. Whenever, I think about this, it always makes me think of what a monumental task we have in front of us. Currently, 99% or so of people come to us who provide training services for fat loss as a BIG reason. I almost feel like we are being apologists for our programs not doing what they think it’s going to do. So, we have to educate the public to unlearn and then re-learn that that’s not really what it’s for. Once they do re-learn that, we run the risk of if they will even want to work with us at all knowing that it won’t serve the purpose that they wanted. And then when everyone learns that, how many less people will be coming to us as a result? It’s crucial that that message about optimizing the other metabolic processes and managing diseases/conditions gets to the right audience.

    • Chris,

      Indeed and it also challenges us to be change agents from start to finish. Most states do not require a degree to perform nutrition interventions (e.g. not perform medical nutrition therapy) and I feel this is the next step for trainers/coaches/clinicians. It’s not enough to have the shiny equipment or the most optimal protocol if the diet is garbage. We have to learn how to deliver the diet message and coach people in that arena as well.

  4. “We have to learn how to deliver the diet message and coach people in that arena as well.”

    Another difficult step: determining what that diat message should be (reducing intake, lower carb, paleo, vegetarian, etc.) The opinions on this vary about as much as those on exercise do (probably more).

    • I’m coming to the conclusion that habit improvement, meeting them where they are at, is better than being “right” conceptually.

      • I totally agree. The diet has to follow some basic rules (such as reduced consumption if they are eating too much and adequate nutrition) as well as be workable and sustainable for the individual. Otherwise, this leaves a lot of leeway for which diet is best per individual.

  5. Hello, I’d like to ask if it would be beneficial and worth the risk to do all-out sprints once a week – about 6-8 15second sprints in addition to HIT strength dumbbell training I plan to do twice a week, 12 exercises, one series… I am 22 year old student, my goal is hypertrophy and low body fat percentage. I started to follow Primal blueprint diet. 179cm/ 76 kg, not overweight, but not muscular either…about 15 percent bodyfat.

    • I just watched again your 21c presentation. Once a week HIT and Primal diet will do just fine, I guess.
      Is there an effective way to measure TUL and rest pause? I have a timer app at my phone, but that’s all. I believe TUL is a better measure of progress than simple reps.

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