You work out to lose weight, right? But new research suggest unless you do it properly, you could end up gaining pounds

Why do we exercise? Fear of ‘being fat’ certainly motivates many of us in our fitness regimes. The health problems that often accompany a bulging waistband are the reasons the NHS and other health experts encourage us to do 30 minutes of activity five times a week.

It’s simple – if you’re carrying extra pounds, you should work out, to torch calories, lose weight and bolster health. And, since the energy you use to exercise comes from your food and fat stores, this theory makes sense. But is it really that straightforward? Well, perhaps not. There’s increasing evidence that exercise isn’t always guaranteed to shed pounds and sculpt toned lean bodies.

Can Fitness Make You Fat?

A study in the International Journal of Obesity, showed that nearly all of 12,568 regular runners gained weight and increased waist circumference over a nice-year period. Only those who increased their exercise intensity, or dramatically upped their mileage, bucked the trend. Another study in The British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that 58 obese people, who completed a 12-weel aerobic exercise plan, lost an average of just seven pounds. Many lost less and some put weight on. Add to that results recently published in the European Heart Journal, which show nearly half of overweight people are as metabolically fit and healthy as their slimmer counterparts, and the rationale of ‘work out for weight loss’ starts to sound distinctly sketchy.

Smarter sets

Worrying as this may seem, it’s not exercising that’s the problem here, but how you work out and what you do afterwards. ‘Exercise is great for cardiovascular health, but diet is key to fat loss’, says metabolic dietician Kit Kaalund Hansen. ‘Personal trainers of ten say that the importance in ratio of diet to exercise is 20:80 I think you should turn that around to 80:20’.

So are our sweat sessions a waste of time? Sometimes, says trainer Jon Stratford (commanadoactive.com). ‘Nutrition is keys but exercise choice is important, too. People don’t change their type of training often enough, and the body becomes accustomed to it. So it requires less effort and energy to do that regime’.

Description: Exercise is great for cardiovascular health, but diet is key to fat loss

Exercise is great for cardiovascular health, but diet is key to fat loss

Other experts agree. ‘I’ve met many people who’ve trained for years and not lost any weight’, says weight-loss expert Louise Parker. ‘Weight-loss is simple, but most people are not well informed. They’re training incorrectly and eating the wrong things’.

If you want to get more bangs for your buck on the gym floor, many experts are quick to suggest short-and-sweet sessions. ‘Too many people think that low-intensity steady-state training (or LISS), such as jogging for ages, is the most efficient way to lose pounds – it’s not; you should go for high-intensity interval training (HIIT)’, says Stratford. And make your muscles work harder by adding weight to strength work, increasing the tempo of cardio and reducing your rest between sets.

Cut the calories

Sounds sensible, but there are still more issues to consider. Researchers at Louisiana State University claim that working out can lead to a compensatory mechanism that slows down weight-loss. In a telling study, the researchers put hundreds of overweight women on various six-month exercise regimes and one non-exercise schedule. All women maintained their existing diets and, amazingly, there wasn’t much difference in overall body fat loss between participants. The researchers concluded that the exercisers doing the most activity rewarded themselves with high-calorie foods that cancelled out their fat loss.

Description: The researchers concluded that the exercisers doing the most activity rewarded themselves with high-calorie foods that cancelled out their fat loss.

The researchers concluded that the exercisers doing the most activity rewarded themselves with high-calorie foods that cancelled out their fat loss.

This could be because exercise makes you hungrier by upping your levels of the appetite-stimulating hormones, insulin and lepton. And the urge to refuel may hit women harder, as our bodies fight to cling on the energy for a potential pregnancy. ‘Women are more likely to reach for the biscuit tin because they experience a long-term increase in insulin and lepton’, says Hansen. Plus, it doesn’t help that the body diverts blood flow from the digestive tract during exercise, and focuses its energy on cooling down. Once body temperature has returned to normal blood flow to the digestive system increases and an insatiable appetite returns Choice of exercise may also play its parts in the battle against the bulge and here’s another thumbs-up for HIIT training. A study form Loughborough University shows that intense exercise suppresses appetite best b increasing levels of peptide YY (an appetite-suppressing hormone) and reducing ghrelin (an appetite-stimulating hormone). ‘Any activities that boost hear rate will have this effect’. Claims Hansen, ‘and the higher the intensity of exercise, the longer the effect will last’.

The compensator trap

Ignoring post-workout hunger pangs may have little effect, however, if your body is secretly saving the calories. In her book The First 20 Minutes (Icon Books, $19.55), fitness expert Gretchen Reynolds cites another problem at play – the compensator’s diet.

‘Exercise is great for heart health and fitness, but diet is key to fat loss’

‘As a species, we’re astonishingly efficient at clawing back calories’, says Reynolds. ‘People relying on exercise to burn calories sometimes, without intending, move less during the day. They grow sedentary. They sit when they once might have stood’. Science calls this ‘non-volitional exercise-induced inactivity’ and it can happen without you even realizing!

Research from the University of Copenhagen backs Reynolds up. The scientists put 61 sedentary and moderately overweight participants on one of three activity plans – one group remained sedentary; another did 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day and a third group exercised vigorously for an hour a day. Surprisingly, results showed that the ‘moderate’ exercise group lost more weight than the intense exercises. Why? Motion detector reports show that the vigorous exercisers spent most of their non-exercisers moved more throughout the day.

So is the ‘exercise makes you fat’ message misguided? ‘It’s irresponsible’, says Hansen. ‘What people may not realize is that exercise doesn’t have to mean going to the gym six days a week. It can be as simple as a brisk walk to work or kicking a football around with family. It’s important to remember that aerobic exercise is also essential for good cardiovascular health, and even those who are naturally skinny need to exercise to protect their heart’.

So, now we know – and what a relief. Time to HIIT the gym, maybe?

5 ways to make workouts work

·         Don’t make exercise a chore. Walk to work, train with friends – fun fitness is essential for meeting long-term goals.

·         Do mix some resistance training into a cardio plan to fire-up your fat burners.

·         Don’t be gluttonous. Eat well and be mindful of post-workout portion sizes.

·         Do take body measurements with calipers or a tape measure, for an accurate fat stat.

·         Don’t train aimlessly! Do high-intensity sessions a few times each week to rev up your metabolism.

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