You Can’t Out Exercise Your Diet


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As cliche as a New Year’s Resolution can be, the turnover to a new year is a great time to set a goal, try a new hobby, or embark on some type of journey. I will spare you the data on success rates of New Year’s Resolutions, but I would like to tell you about a trend we often see in physical therapy clinics. While resolutions are not limited to health, we most often hear about a patients’ weight loss and fitness goals.

Improved health is a great goal to choose! I will be first in line to encourage improving fitness and health maintenance. My dream for the world is for everyone to be just 1% more conscious of their health in a preventative manner each day. A New Year’s Resolution is a great start to that goal. The purpose of this article is to shed light on some setbacks that folks experience after embarking on a fitness or weight loss journey in the hope that you can avoid these pitfalls and optimize your wellness goals.

A primary reason for patients seeking physical therapy or an orthopedic exam is trying to “out-exercise” a poor diet. This can manifest in a variety of forms, each important to understand when trying to keep yourself well and healthy. The most common example is with weight loss. Weight loss is a common goal among people of all ages and for good reason! There are tremendous benefits to reducing your body fat percentage to within age and sex releated norms. Issues arise when exercise becomes too highly prioritized compared to diet in a weight loss plan.

Exercise should only be a small piece of a weight management plan. Diet accounts for about 95% of weight loss or gain. The number one factor in weight loss or weight gain is Calories burned vs Calories eaten. You may be thinking that this means you can infinitely increase your exercise level to burn more calories and achieve the desired effect, but the equation is not so simple when put into practice for any duration of time.

For someone new to exercise, or someone making a large shift in the type of exercise they are performing (ie. walking to weightlifting, yoga to running), they may experience rapid changes in body composition (muscle gain or fat loss) or performance improvements (strength/ speed/ endurance) without much thought or specific science behind all of their hard work. These “beginner gains” are an awesome benefit to starting something new, but need to be understood as beginner gains and not expected to continue forever.

Issues tend to arise when the “beginner gains” wear off. As your body adapts to the newly added activity, your ability to burn calories during the activity is lessened. This is good news for performance benefits, but not so good for weight management. If you are looking to be a better runner, being a more efficient runner is a huge positive! If you are looking to manage your weight using running, that means that the better you get at running, the less calories you will burn for a given effort. We often see patients suffer injuries during this phase of fitness. Instead of looking at diet to continue body composition improvements, we often see patients try to increase the volume, intensity, or duration of exercise beyond the ability of their body to reestablish their prior rate of improvement.
This is why monitoring your caloric intake is the most important factor in weight management. Nutrition has become extremely complicated with specific diets, focus on supplements, and overemphasizing the quality of food. When you boil it all down, your body understands nothing but Calorie Intake – Calories Burned = Weight lost or gained. You can try a keto diet, add fish oil pills at breakfast, and buy only organic food…but if you eat 2500 calories of organic keto food and burn 1500 calories each day at the end of the week, you will have eaten 7000 more calories than you burned regardless of the quality. The quality of your food is important, but for other reasons than weight loss or gain that is beyond the scope of this article. You may realize when tracking calories that better quality food choices are less calorie dense and you don’t need to restrict portions as much (fast food burger vs steak).

I hope that this article helps simplify the process of monitoring your weight management. In closing, I will provide a few tips on how to create an exercise program that can compliment a proper caloric intake in managing weight.

Lift something heavy 2-3x per week. Resist the urge to go to the gym or lift for a long time. Spend about 30 mins on weight training per session, but lift something that is at the edge of what you are able to complete safely each time. Perform some leg strengthening. Lunge. Squat. Deadlift. Leg press. You will thank yourself! Strength training reduces injury risk better than any other activity. Hopefully this makes your journey more sustainable. Change up your “cardio”. I put cardio in quotes because all exercise works your heart. Most people view cardio as their long duration/repetitive work out. Try to change it up to avoid overuse injuries and the adaptation effect. Make sure your endurance is not too taxing. If you are shot after each endurance work out, you are more likely to hit a wall or injury somewhere down the road.Take 2 days rest per week to reduce your risk for injury. If you feel you need to work out 7 days to burn enough calories, then your diet is what should be in question.

Have a happy and healthy New Year!

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