The Role of Exercise in Preventing Weight Regain

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After the post Is There a Metabolic Unicorn? I decided to revisit the topic of metabolism again as if I knew nothing. I’m also doing this at the same time that I’m reviewing some of my older posts about the role of exercise in fat loss.

Back in 2012, I did a 5 part series where I dismissed the role of exercise in fat loss based mostly upon my own experiences and what I was seeing with others. Without going back and reviewing those 5 articles, my belief in short was:

  • As we increase our exercise, appetite will rise to meet the additional energy demands. Maybe not initially, but over a longer time frame. This is a healthy response that makes total sense. But we can never out exercise our appetite.
  • Most of the studies that I saw back then that championed the role of exercise for fat loss I felt had flaws. The first was they were usually a short time frame. Weeks or months. Not years or decades. They also were often done with younger people who can recover faster from injuries and have other advantages. Which brings me to…
  • When we get sick or injured or life interrupts our training, appetite is slow to drop to our new energy output. So the gains we made early in our exercise program can easily get wiped out and more.

If my assumptions were accurate there are two ways to respond.

  1. Keep increasing calories and activity until you get to a high enough level that you can achieve G-Flux. For this to work you can’t get injured, sick, or sidelined for too long. In G-Flux, the body finds it inefficient to carry around extra fat, even at a high calorie level. This is different than Matt Stone’s Metabolic Zone in that it requires a high level of activity. I don’t see this option as realistic for 99% of us.
  2. Perform the most sustainable level of exercise you do that minimizes injury risk during the fat loss period. This would be something you can do on normal weeks, busy weeks or even travel weeks if you travel frequently.

Although I don’t think my 5 year old posts are wrong, I now feel based off my current reading that they are incomplete. Before we go further, I want to repeat that there are many great reasons to exercise. Just because it isn’t the best for fat loss, doesn’t mean I’m against exercise. I highly recommend exercise that is safe and sustainable.

Fat Loss and Metabolism

What I was unaware of until recently is that humans have an energy conservation tendency when they lose weight. This is likely a survival technique. From Why Is It So Easy To Regain Weight? by James Krieger:

We know that weight loss will decrease energy expenditure from the simple fact that you have less weight to move around.  However, the question is whether the decrease in energy expenditure is proportional to the weight lost, or if it is greater than what you would expect given the weight lost.  If the decrease is greater than what you would expect, then that means your body is adapting to the weight loss and trying to conserve energy.  In other words, you become more efficient.

The article digs through the numbers of a few studies to show that the dieters are conserving energy. So in addition to having a lower metabolism from losing weight, they are now in a position that makes weight regain much easier because they require even fewer calories than people at their same weight that never dieted – because they are conserving more energy output.

Read the entire article. It was eye opening for me. The author makes a mathematical case that people that lose weight are likely to regain the weight unless they increase their activity, specifically NEAT. NEAT is Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. Which PubMed defines as:

…is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting. Even trivial physical activities increase metabolic rate substantially…

I got some push back this weekend when I discussed this energy conservation theory on why regaining weight is common. I was told that when people lose weight they feel more energetic and exercise more. This may be true is some cases, but weight regain is real and these studies are convincing to me. They also make the case for focusing on the NEAT.

The times in my life when I exercised the most were also the times when I sat for long periods. I didn’t think about it at the time, but it was like my body went into an energy conservation mode as soon as I left the gym. And as the article concludes, the decrease in activity came from NEAT not exercise.

Krieger followed up that article with another titled Physical Activity and Weight Regain. Both are excellent and worth reading.

Photo by MC Speedy. Don’t sit so much. Standing is a start. Walk a bit. Take the stairs. 

Reconciling My Views with NEAT

When one starts a fat loss plan it is important to know what can cause failure. If we know that NEAT declines and that we can greatly increase the chances of keeping off lost weight, then gradually building habits that increase our NEAT throughout the diet is an essential strategy.

Focus on the food first. Then as the pounds start coming off direct your attention more towards increasing movement.

Stress and Low Body Fat Levels

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A year ago I posted How I Regained the Weight I Lost. There I speculated on what was my ideal weight.

If I were to ask my body what it believes my ideal weight is, I’d get different answers. My shoulders, chest and legs, would say I look most muscular at 215. My abs might say 185. My face looks younger at 200 than 185.

This is what I have believed for a few years now. The part I want to focus on is the fact my face looked younger at a higher weight. I believe I may have drawn a false conclusion.

When I was at my lowest weight, my face looked haggard. Years of reading nutrition blogs and their comments made me aware that dieting to low body levels can make one look rundown. And it appears to be more common with men over 30 that primarily use a lower carb diet. These are not my observations, but the observations that I’ve stumbled across several times.

What causes someone to look haggard at low body fat levels? When I first asked that question, I guessed that age was the primary reason. My thinking was that a 25 year old can still have amazing vibrant skin and be ripped, but at a certain age our faces need our body to carry more weight to look younger. But there is more to the story.

I’m actually surprised that it took me this long to connect the dots, but it wasn’t until Precision Nutrition posted their infographic on the article The cost of getting lean: Is it really worth the trade-off? before I realized my nutritional narrative was false. Go look at that graphic now. The part that caught my eye was in the Do More Do Less section. Notice the difference in recommendations.

Body Fat Percentage:

  • Men 15-20%, Women 25-30%: (no sleep or stress management requirements)
  • Men 13-15%, Women 23-25%: Sleep 7+ hours a night, practice some stress management
  • Men 10-12%, Women 20-22%: Sleep 7-8+ hours a night, De-stress daily for 20 minutes
  • Men 6-9%, Women 16-19%: Sleep 8-9+ hours a night, De-stress daily for 20 minutes
  • Men <6%, Women <16%: Sleep 9+ hours a night, De-stress daily for 20 minutes

According to the chart, sleep and stress management requirements increase as someone goes from normal lean to cut. The implication here is that the very act of being lean is stressful. I had to ask for clarification.

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And then everything made sense. It wasn’t the low body fat levels that made me look haggard, it was how I achieved them. How did I get very lean? From The Grand Experiment Revisited:

Getting ripped is hard, but the real challenge would be to do it in a way that supports metabolism. What I learned is something I’ve talked about on other posts in the past few years and that is don’t stack stressors. Fasting, lifting, eat super clean, poor sleep and running on high levels of caffeine are all stressors. I did all those and then when that wasn’t enough, I started swimming in the cold Puget Sound.

I looked haggard because as I got leaner, my stress levels went up. I wasn’t reducing stress, I was stacking it. My sleep needs were increasing and I was frequently waking up in the middle of the night with headaches. There is a lesson here. Unless one can address stress and commit to enough sleep, getting very lean is going to be difficult or come at a cost or both.

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Sleep by me

Update on that 20 Pound Fat Loss Goal

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This past February I set the stage for a 20 pound fat loss goal. When I set the goal, several people told me that was too much weight for me to lose. My primary motivation for dropping 20 pounds was to increase the odds that my left knee, which had been in pain for a while, would heal quicker. But I was never convinced that a 20 pound reduction would be optimal. In fact I had it in the back of my head that I’d lean out, heal and then regain. From the section What is My Ideal Weight? on the post How I Regained the Weight I Lost.

If I were to ask my body what it believes my ideal weight is, I’d get different answers. My shoulders, chest and legs, would say I look most muscular at 215. My abs might say 185. My face looks younger at 200 than 185. But right now only one vote counts and that is my left knee.

My goal is to lose 20 pounds and return to 195. Once my knee heals, I can decide if I want to stay there or go higher.

But as the weeks and months went by, I started to doubt that reducing weight and performing the knee exercises I had researched were having any benefit. I lost half the weight and lost interest. When I left Seattle and arrived in California, I had to adopt to a shared kitchen, new grocery stores and new restaurants. I also no longer had access to a scale. For a while I was playing around with a tape measure, but eventually I even stopped doing that. My knee wasn’t improving, but my sleep was great and so was my skin, which were two things that weren’t great when I was super lean. So I stopped tracking weight or inches or calories or protein and gave up the goal completely.

Although I plan to discuss the knee more in a separate post, I now know what I suspected. The primary reason it is not healing is because I drive a stick shift car in traffic. Since college I have been driving stick-shift hatchbacks. Not the best thing for someone 6 foot 2.5 inches tall. I’ll shelf this discussion for its own post. Back to the fat loss goal.

So last week I was able to weigh myself 3 times from 2 different scales. This is the first time I have weighed myself since June. My weight is the same. I was able to keep the 9 pounds off that I lost in Seattle.

Maybe I have found my ideal weight? Maybe I don’t have an ideal weight? I’ve gone my entire adult life wishing I was some other weight than what I was. When I was scrawny, I wanted to gain. When I gained muscle, I wanted to be ripped. When I finally got ripped, my face looked like a meth addict and I wanted to gain again. Back and forth and never completely satisfied. That lack of acceptance wasn’t healthy.

Today I am happy with my weight. If I lose 5 pounds of fat or gain 5 pounds of muscle that would be great, but if I don’t, that is fine as well.

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Photo by Wade Kelly

Revisiting the Tim Ferriss 30 in 30 Experiment?

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Last year I unsuccessfully tested Tim Ferriss’s idea of consuming 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up. Instead of curbing my hunger, it increased it. Here is what I posted on Ending the Tim Ferriss 30 in 30 Experiment:

It not only isn’t working, but I’ve actually gained 4 more pounds. It has been a disaster. My hunger levels are higher than before. I now think about eating all day long.

After 3 weeks, I ended the experiment. At the end of the post, I listed several possible reasons. But I have may have missed one. For my experiment, I used whey protein. Although I am not a fan of protein powders, I needed the supplement for the convenience of consistently getting 30 grams of protein quickly.

The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman
The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman by Timothy Ferriss

Maybe the failure of my experiment was really a failure of whey protein and not protein itself? That idea didn’t occur to me until this morning when I watched a video on a making a 4HB protein smoothie on YouTube.

30 grams Protein 4-Hour Body Breakfast Smoothie by HealthNutNutrition

At 2:20 the host of the video states the problem with just using whey protein. Because whey protein is so highly absorbable, “you will probably be hungry within an hour”. That is exactly how I felt! Her solution is to mix it with egg protein. Doing this increases satiety.

High Satiety, High Convenience Proteins?

If whey + egg has more satiety than whey by itself, then one starts to wonder – what is the most satiating protein? What is the most satiating protein powder blend? Most whey protein is sold to athletes that use it precisely because it is quickly absorbed and won’t blunt their appetite for additional calorie loading.

But if your goal is to use higher protein levels to reduce appetite for fat loss, what is the best protein? Egg, casein or maybe my beloved gelatin? I spent a few hours searching and couldn’t find the answer to this question, so maybe one of my smart readers can lead me in the right direction?

30/30 Reboot

I’m ready to try this experiment again. I believe the science is clear that protein has the most satiating effect of all the macronutrients. But I also believe that whey protein by itself is an appetite stimulator for myself. I need a new protein shake recipe. I could even use one of those “build your own” protein powders if I knew which amino acids had the greatest effect of satiety. Your thoughts?

20 Pound Bet: Week 11 Weigh In

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For a background to this post see How I Plan to Lose 20 Pounds and Win the Bet.

Week #11 Weigh-In: -1. Total Loss: -9.

These posts are getting boring. This will be the last regularly scheduled weekly weigh in. From here on out I will be updating a spreadsheet instead.

http://goo.gl/3xyqMv

I like what Pauline said in her comment on the Week 10 Weigh In.

 I read two things recently regarding eating healthily – practise, practise, practise. And consistency as long as you keep trending in the right direction, you will get there.

Practice is essential for the individual, but it isn’t a spectator sport. If I gather any new insight or reach my goal, I’ll post again on the blog. Until then, I’ll jot down numbers and notes in the shared spreadsheet.