Archives for August 18, 2019

Is exercise making you fat?

Have you ever put in the hard yards in the gym, flogged yourself three or four times a week only to watch your weight gradually increase? 

Some people will comfort you with the old line ‘muscle weighs heavier than fat’, and muscle is a denser material than fat, but that weight gain could also be attributed to an increase in your cortisol levels.

Cortisol is chemical produced in the body at times of stress, like when you have a near miss in your car or when you put your body through the stress of a strenuous workout.

In a nutshell, cortisol increases appetite, more specifically, your appetite for foods that are high in sugar. Why? Because at times of stress humans enter fight or flight mode and either of these responses requires a quick source of energy, ergo the sugar craving.

Just to make things worse, cortisol also decreases leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full. So while you are clocking up the kilometres on the treadmill, you are raising your cortisol levels and post workout you may be consuming higher quantities of the wrong types of food. 

Before you shake your head and vow to give up on exercise, remember that the benefits far outweigh this little chemical glitch. If your scales keep going up no matter how hard you train though, look out for these cortisol cravings and put down the chocolate bar and coke. 

We all know the simple formula for weight loss is energy in (food) should be less than energy out (physical activity). Don’t let cortisol fool you into thinking that the hour you just spent on the bike means you need an extra large muffin. Like all cravings, it will pass quickly and when your friends comment on how good you look, you’ll never look back with regret at that mountain of caramel fudge you chose not to climb.

How come training hard never became a trend?

Like all industries, health and fitness is routinely ravaged by trends. Trends can indicate conventional training is not working, or simply be part of that futile search for some magical fitness formula. Case in point, Zumba arrived while step classes were disappearing. In fact you’d have trouble finding a step class now, but Ricky Martin hip sways can get you fit – what’s with the little straps of cloth on the Zumba pants though?

If you look beyond the trends and fruitless search for the perfect exercise, there are some universal truths in health and fitness that remain untouched by marketing hype, time and infomercials. The first is that you need to exercise – with around 206 moving parts in the human body we are born to be physical. With the increasing sedentary nature of our work and lifestyle, incidental exercise has all but disappeared; we pay for our lawns to be mowed, houses to be cleaned, we use dishwashers, drive the car two blocks to pick up food that we haven’t cooked and then work our thumb muscles to drive the TV remote until bed time.

Obesity is on the rise partly because our bodies no longer rise (from the couch, office chair or bed). ‘Intensity’ scares people into becoming ‘lazy exercisers’. Strange term I know, but lazy exercisers can spend 40 minutes on a treadmill at the same pace 5 days a week, barely breaking a sweat and then complain about not losing weight.

Health and fitness is not about using the minimum effort possible to perform an exercise so you can wear tracksuits and tell everyone you workout. It has to have a level of intensity, ideally each workout will be more ‘intense’ than the previous one, even if only by the tiniest of increments. Basically we need to harden up and break into a sweat. We eat too much.

Remember when you used to ‘work up’ an appetite? Now we eat because we are bored, sad, to celebrate or commiserate and everything in between. Energy in (calories consumed) has to be less than energy out (calories used) in order for weight loss to occur. There are other factors that impact on this simple formula of course, but it is a good place to start. Intense exercise tends to burn calories at an accelerated rate and unlike 40 minutes of easy walking, the calorie burn continues for a while after you finish. As long as you don’t start eating more, simply upping the intensity of your workouts can therefore make a difference.

This approach is not just applicable to cardio, you hard gain weightlifters can increase your intensity as well. If you’re doing 10 sets of bench press, I’m guessing your intensity is not high. I can hear the protests right now, but let’s face it, if you plan 10 sets, you are lifting a weight that will let you pump out ten sets. Try lifting a weight that means you can only do 1 or 2 sets – that’s the intensity I am talking about. At worst it may help break your training plateau and then you can go back to ten sets.

I’ve left the good news until last, by increasing the intensity you get to decrease the duration of your workouts. Instead of 40 minutes on a treadmill, you only have to do 20 minutes, no more ten sets, try two and see how quickly you are out of the gym and into muscle recovery/building mode. There are a number of workout styles that incorporate intense periods of work with moderate periods (interval training) or random changes in intensity (Fartlek) or heavy weight/low rep workouts for weightlifters. Why not check them out, up the intensity in your next workout and reap the rewards.

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