When More is Not Better

“Eat less, exercise more,” We’ve all heard the oversimplified motto of the health industry spouted off as a recipe for health and weight loss. Yet, for many that have attempted to follow this advice find that the results they experience don’t necessarily fall in line with what’s expected.

So what went wrong? Maybe they went too far on the “eat less” spectrum. There’s all sort of things that can go wrong on that side of the spectrum. Low calories can cause the metabolism to slow down by throwing your hormones all out of whack. Then there’s the fallacy that somehow consuming less junk (100 calorie snack packs, anyone?) is somehow better for you. It’s kind of like a pack a day smoker cutting down to a quarter pack. Better, but by no means good.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument though (and the length and subject matter of this article), that you are eating a healthy diet, with enough quality nutrients to keep your body humming along healthily, with your hormones working great and whatnot. You revisit the aforementioned “universal truth” of weight loss and, knowing that calorie restriction is not the answer, there appears to be only one other way to go to work the equation in your favor.

You’ve got to exercise more, right?

Not so fast. We live in a “more is better” society so jumping to that conclusion seems to be the logical step. We want more money, a bigger house, and another car in that driveway. Without digressing into the pitfalls of consumerism, we’re wired to need more. When we apply this same logic to exercise it’s easy to see how it can lead us astray.

Say 30 minutes of running three days a week is allowing you to see a a reasonable about of weight loss, maybe a half a pound a week.  Once you’re comfortable there it can be enticing to up that exercise to an hour a session, or add in an extra day or two, or some combination of the two.

Logic would dictate that the additional movement would accelerate your results, and it may for a time. Eventually though, the same stimulus will not illicit the same response and we keep trying to pile on the exercise. Before you know it you’re training for a marathon, running 50 miles a week to try and burn the weight off.

I’m not knocking marathon training. I’ve run several myself because I thoroughly enjoyed it. Initially I got into endurance sports for the wrong reason. I had lost weight running a few times a week so I naturally assumed that running more would help me lose those “last ten pounds.”

That wasn’t the case. Training upwards of 20 hours a week for an Ironman race did little to release my lower abdomen fat. I know now that’s a sign of elevated cortisol, which the body tends to produce when its in a stressed state, such as extended periods of exercise. Couple that with less than stellar sleep, few rest days, and a diet that did not focus on nutrient quality and it’s no wonder I never achieved the lean look of a seasoned triathlete.

It’s funny how exercise is typically viewed by dieters as a means to burn calories. Heck, every cardio machine at the gym tracks how much you burn and recent technology has allowed the same information to be viewed on our wrist. We feel satisfied when we’ve made those counters add up to bigger and bigger numbers, like setting the high score on a video game. I know I wore my twenty hour training weeks like a badge of honor. The same goes for each race distance I took on that was longer than the previous one. More is better, right?

The same can be applied to intensity. We all relish a tough workout that pushes us to our limits, to a point of exhaustion, agony, or crying in a pool of our own sweat. Doing that day in and day out is a recipe for disaster, much like piling on the mileage to an already exhausted body.

Fortunately our bodies have a way of regulating themselves, and there’s signs if we know where to look and how to listen.  This goes against the foolish “no pain, no gain” philosophy, but if the fat’s not going anywhere or worse, pooling up in your love handles, or you’re so fatigued that you can’t crawl out of bed in the morning it may be time to listen up. For someone, like me, who has a tendency to hold onto body fat with absurd levels of exercise the key may lie in better management of nutrition, managing stress, and dialing back the exercise.

Yes, dialing back the exercise. It pains me to say that because exercise, whether endurance training or lifting weights, has always been a pleasurable experience for me. While my mind enjoys it and the associated release of endorphins, my body does not necessarily share that same pleasure all the time. I’m all for doing what you love to stay in shape, but you need to evaluate if it’s truly helping or hurting your health.

The solution here may instead be to back off a bit and add in more restorative forms of movement, such as yoga and walking, and stress management techniques such as meditation.  For someone who considers themselves an athlete, viewing walking as a form of exercise can be difficult, but it is really one of the best things you can do.

Everyone is different though, so finding that balance between hard workouts and restorative movement will need to be titrated based on how you feel. This can be worked in cyclically as well, where periods of high intensity/volume are balanced out with a period of rest, reduced work, and recuperative exercise. Personally, I’ve found that coupling a few, short, but intense workouts a week with plenty of restorative movement has yielded the best results for me.

It’s really the best of both worlds, delivering that ass kicking workout when I need it, and allowing my body recovery time so it is not in a constant over-stressed state. The point of exercise is to introduce a stress and allow the body to recover so it adapts and becomes thinner, faster, stronger, etc. Constant stress, introduced by an incessant addiction to achieve that maximal calorie burn, never allows for that beneficial adaptation. Instead the body spends it’s time distressed, in continual inflammation, and with a death grip on your stored body fat.

More punishing workouts will not change that. More of the same exercise that got you to that point will not change that. Better treatment of your body will.

Take an extra rest day. Sleep in. Go for a walk. Pick up tai chi or yoga.

These are better choices for a stressed body. It seems so obvious when you stop to think about it. More is not necessarily better, but better is actually better.

Crazy, I know.

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