I’ve been asked about the best exercise for weight loss in fitness consultations, following fitness classes, and most recently by email, blog comments and Flipping 50 TV applications for 36 years. (updated post July, 2020)
It saddens me that we’re still here. It frustrates me that some of the fault for this lies with fitness blogs and articles that perpetuate this old school thinking. I’m approached several times a week by someone wanting to write blogs or post their video on flippingfifty.com and unfortunately their science is non-existent.
At Flipping 50, I am a researcher who digs deep for the facts that pertain to you, a woman who wants to do her entire second half full of energy and vitality. There are no “studies of one” or blogs simply catering to what people are searching for alone. This is how most of the fitness marketers on the internet determine what they write next.
Sadly it happens even for blogs I guest post for. I have to gently but firmly decline the angle they request I take. Many marketers only look at what you’re searching for and write to feed that curiosity, so that you’ll buy their products. They don’t care as much about educating you or that this path you’re on might be taking you further from your goal. It’s faster and easier to get you to buy if they tell you what you already think is right.
Weight Loss Exercise is Trending About Now
This month in particular, you’re vulnerable. If you’re searching for the best exercise for weight loss, you’ll find many answers that may lead you right back to another search more frustrated next year.
Raised on the idea that weight control is all about “calories in calories out” it’s hard to change your thinking. Yet, there’s plenty of evidence to show you that if you simply eat less and exercise more you WILL not lose more weight, particularly fat weight, and you may in fact hold onto more weight and slow your metabolism.
Many studies support these two facts:
- Quality not calories matters most when it comes to eating
- Quality not calories matters most when it comes to exercise
That’s not to discount the fact that yes, portion control – though I prefer portion awareness – is important: you can overdue almonds and sunflower seeds, too. But it is not about simply moderation in all things. No, 1980 called and wants that back.
The fact is though, for weight loss exercise has to have a positive effect on hormones. It’s not how many calories does it burn. It’s what does it do to your hormones which determine fat loss and fat storage.
The very thing you’ve adopted (if you’re counting calories) as [what you think is] best practice for losing weight can actually increase your fat stores and make it much harder to lose fat in the future. If you eat less, you tell your body to burn less, thus you slow your metabolism down. If you exercise more, your body either becomes more efficient at exercise (and burns less after a point) or has a poor hormone response to it and because of increasing cortisol and inflammation you also hold onto weight instead of shedding it. If you do both less food and more exercise you confuse your body and therefore slow your metabolism down further.
The Science of Calories In Calories Out
Take these 3 studies my friend and colleague Jonathan Bailor recently shared about calories in into consideration:
Researchers at Cornell University split people into groups, each eating 1,800 calories a day. The group who ate the higher-quality calories lost 86.5 percent more body fat than the “typical” dieters—even though they ate the same calories.
A similar study at the U.S. Naval Hospital revealed that simply by altering the quality of foods consumed (NOT the number of calories), test subjects lost twice as much body fat in just 10 days.
That’s why all calories are most definitely not created equal inside our bodies. In a study conducted at Marshall University, test subjects were divided into two groups.
- Group one went on conventional low-calorie diets.
- Group two were told they could have an unlimited number of calories and simply to avoid excessive sugar and starch.
The results were pretty shocking.
The calorie-restricted group GAINED 5 POUNDS.
The unlimited-calorie group LOST 11 pounds each. Flipping big difference.
Science on the best exercise for weight loss
Energy we gain comes from food. We can agree on that. The energy we spend comes from physical activity as well as what it takes to sustain our body’s daily function. Physical activity effects weight loss but not in the way you’ve been led to believe. You can’t “burn it off.” Weight loss exercise is a myth! But keep reading.
What exercise does do is set off a cascade of changes that influence:
- How much you eat
- How many calories you use
- What your body burns for fuel
This can go well or it can go sideways.
Simply exercising more once you’ve gained weight will not necessarily allow you to lose weight.
Calories in calories out fail
Case in point: The amount of exercise energy expended had no correlation with weight loss in studies lasting 20 weeks.
The poor effect of “more” exercise on weight loss is evident when you look at people training for marathons that don’t lose weight and often gain a pound or two. Post menopausal women who ramp up exercise with the idea of burning more calories typically lose only a few pounds at best when diets are kept constant. Similar results occur when diets are adjusted to create a calorie deficit (more supposedly spent during exercise than consumed).
Endurance exercisers often overeat after exercise either because of hunger or believing they’ve earned it. The wrong kind of exercise will stimulate appetite. It makes your brain overcompensate with either food or periods of inactivity (more on that below).
Exercise and Appetite
The right kind of exercise will mediate appetite.
That is, find the ‘goldilocks’ appetite. Women over 50 often tell me frequently they don’t have an appetite, or they don’t listen to it. That’s not ideal. The right kind of exercise – that which is going to be the best exercise for weight loss – will optimize appetite for a midlife woman, often because it enhances digestion.
Typically studies show we overestimate how much we exercise and burn and then overcompensate with food because we underestimate how much we eat. Bad combination.
I referred to this next tidbit in You Still Got It, Girl! In general most studies show you can’t lose weight from exercise alone due to “couch-compensation.” Either by self-selection or because of the sedentary lives we have that require sitting 8 hours a day at work, plus an average of 4 more at home we’re trying to balance 23 hours of sitting and sleeping with 30-60 minutes of exercise a few times a week.
If you pour yourself into a workout and then eat (and drink) like you deserve anything you want the rest of the day you’ve got a problem. Even distance runners typically come up short in total energy expenditure compared to moderate exercisers who then are active all day because they’ve boosted their energy. On the flip side, if you exercise and don’t eat enough you’ve confused and stressed your body convincing it to hold on to weight to protect you.
Another reason calories in calories out calculations don’t work
Athletes get efficient. You, will get efficient. Imagine a beginning swimmer who trashes around like a washing machine. I’m thinking about myself here when I first started triathlon training. I could swim forever but realized in trying to go fast I was moving my body fast but not moving through the water fast. I was very inefficient. But, I was burning a lot of energy!
As I became more efficient at swimming (there’s still room for improvement0 I moved through the water with more ease, less resistance, and thus now more efficient I am not burning as much energy. For a triathlete who doesn’t want to have to worry about eating on the run this is good. For a weight loss goal, this can be counterproductive.
Exercise can make you conserve energy. What? Yes. Whether its your basal (resting) metabolic rate slowing (which can be likely if you lose weight) so you burn fewer calories outside your exercise sessions, or you become more efficient you are more likely to spend less energy during exercise over time.
Clearly, MORE exercise is not the answer. The question is not actually, what is the best exercise for weight loss. At least not based on how many calories you burn or how much fat you burn alone. No, weight loss exercise has other qualities.
When choosing the best exercise for weight loss begins to fail
When does total energy expenditure hit a wall? From inactive to moderately active you have the most to gain in boosting your energy expenditure. This is good news for January starters! However from moderate to really active – daily hard exercise – you potentially hit an upper limit and as exercise volume increases caloric expenditure does not show the same increase. Daily hard exercise is not the recommendation, by the way. It’s a frequent mistake made by most exercisers however.
For now this is just a theory but evidence is being collected to either counter or prove it. There does seem to be a ceiling. It would certainly explain why marathon runners don’t lose any more weight than those training for a 5K. Or why increasing from 3 days a week to 5 or two-a-days doesn’t win you what you might think would be the same increased rate of weight or fat loss. The best exercise for weight loss is more complex (and more simple) than more intensity, more duration, or more frequency.
For weight loss exercise it’s not more exercise volume, it’s smarter exercise.
As I’ve trained for endurance events using heart rate monitors and tracking devices it’s clear that going from say a 2 hour bike ride to a 6 hour bike ride does not increase the estimated caloric expenditure by 3. It just doesn’t work that way. In fact, for endurance athletes that’s ideal. You don’t want to have to be consuming tons of food during events. But for the exerciser with weight loss as the primary goal, there’s a better way than more time spent in exercise. More exercise doesn’t increase weight loss or fitness beyond your unique threshold.
BUT… [insert Jaws music] hormone damage does increase. Namely more cortisol, causing more inflammation and more muscle breakdown which don’t add up to more fat weight loss nor more lean muscle gains. Less testosterone is also a problem in maintaining lean muscle. Progress is blocked like a brick wall.
Calories in calories out encourages a disordered relationship with food
When women say…I have to exercise: I like to eat, I cringe. Danger. Sooner or later that may backfire. When it’s about the best exercise for weight loss or simply more exercise for weight loss, there are a lot of factors working against you.
At worst, it becomes a binge purge cycle. At best, this is wrongly continuing the myth of calories in and calories out contributing to loss of fat.
The best exercise for weight loss for a woman under stress with inflammation might be yoga! It might be long slow walks outdoors (if you love that). Neither of these are notorious calorie burning exercises. It’s about your hormones.
If you take one thing from this post, remember this: weight loss exercise can’t sabotage health. The very thing you’ve been led to believe helps you lose weight will cause your body to do everything possible to gain weight.
Identify the real path to fat burning after 50. If you carry additional weight, beyond 20lbs the path to fat burning and weight loss that is fat (not lean muscle) is quite different than that that helps someone with 5-10lbs to lose or a specific few pounds deposited in undesirable places.
Choose a program that addresses your specific needs with the what, the how and the why.
Got more than 20lbs to lose? Click here.
Got less than 20lbs to lose? Click here.