Anyone who’s spent a sleepless night channel surfing or perused the magazine rack in the grocery store can’t help but notice the number of infomercials and articles claiming to be the “next best thing” for winning the “battle of the bulge.” Seemingly everyone claims to have the hidden secret to fat loss – whether it’s following “x” diet or “y” exercise routine.
Unfortunately these sales pitches have a dichotomous effect on us. On one hand, the more we watch and read and dissect the avalanche of information, the more hopeful we are that we can make things happen. Conversely, deep down, we can also feel paralyzed because we know that it’s just not that easy.
If this endless loop of television shows, news stories, websites, books, magazines, and DVDs tells us how we can go about getting our sexy on…why are we still overweight and searching for answers?
Let’s sift through the noise. As it turns out, there are really only two important keys to losing fat. That’s right, two. It’s just that everybody forgets them. So what are they?
KEY #1: Diet Plays a Larger Role Than Exercise
Let’s be perfectly clear here: When it comes to fat loss, calories count. Big time.
Yes, you’ve heard this before. You’ve heard this 10,000 times before -- from Oprah, Dr. Oz, your significant other, and your best friend’s cousin’s mom’s personal trainer.
Everyone says the same thing, so why do you feel like the lone exception in all of human history that it doesn’t apply to?
Habits are indeed hard to break, and it could be argued that changing what you eat and drink on a daily basis are the hardest ones of all, but as renowned strength coach and co-author of the bestselling book "The New Rules for Life," Alwyn Cosgrove, has repeatedly stated, “You’ll never out-train a poor diet.”
There’s no magic pill – or training regimen – that’s going to compensate for, let alone trump, a lackluster approach to what you eat.
In order to burn body fat, it’s hugely important to elicit some sort of caloric deficit – calories in must be less than calories out – either through diet, exercise, or a combination of the two.
Exercise can make this problem worse. How? As soon as they decide they want to lose fat, many people are quick to chase after the latest fitness craze in an effort to finally get into their “skinny” jeans (or someone else’s). Sound familiar?
Well, doing super-duper-red-hot-naked-metabolic-yoga-insanity-pilates-extreme won’t really matter much if you’re the type of person who hightails it to your local Starbucks after every training session to order a Frappuccino the size of Mini Cooper.
Here’s the truth: When it comes to creating a caloric deficit, which in turn leads to increased fat loss, diet plays a much larger role compared to exercise.
While the exact number varies depending on whom you ask, for simplicity sake let’s embrace the commonly held notion that one pound of fat equates to 3500 of excess calories ingested. Then let’s say you’re trying to cut 500 calories per day to lose a pound of fat in one week.
If you’re really pushing yourself hard in the gym, it generally takes 45-60 minutes of vigorous, your-heart-is-going-to-explode exercise to burn off 500 calories.
Compare that effort to what it takes to not eat that Snickers bar you typically have as a mid-afternoon snack, or maybe nixing nightly cocktails, or passing on a pit stop at McDonalds. What is a better use of your time: 60 minutes of gym-base masochism, or simply not eating those 500 calories you don’t need each day?
It doesn’t matter how many days per week you work out, nor how hard you work out, or even how long you work out; when it comes to the battle of the bulge, your day-to-day nutrition is going to be the “x” factor. It’s as simple as that.
KEY #2: Exercise Counts, Just Not in the Way You Think
Go to any gym and you’ll see people plugging away on their treadmills, running endless miles, attending any number of group exercise classes, or maybe even hitting the weight room, hoisting, pushing, and pulling every dumbbell or barbell within reach. This is a great thing. Exercise, no matter the type, helps our bodies in many ways.
But here’s the problem: Many people think that more is better; that somehow the quantity of exercise increases the amount of fat dropped.
In reality, the opposite is true: Increasing training volume, especially in the long term, really only makes you hungrier. More exercise equals a bigger appetite. Compound that with an already restrictive caloric intake, and bad things are bound to happen. Before long, you feel weak, tired, run down. Progress stalls. And the binge eating begins.
As Mark Young, C.S.C.S., notes, “When we look at the research, it appears that adding exercise to an already effective diet produces very little, (if any) additional weight loss. When it comes down to it, if you’re trying to lose weight (or fat), diet is going to be the key to your success. Adding in ANY type of exercise is not going to have a huge impact on weight loss.”
Before you cancel your gym membership, let’s remember that exercise - in any form - is never a waste of time. Simply understand that many people have it backwards.
Starting an exercise program for the sole purpose to burn fat or lose weight is counterproductive. As we noted above, exercise is a very time inefficient way to go about burning fat. It’s part of the equation, of course, but many people are under the assumption that adding more and more exercise – particularly endurance based – is the key.
What we need to do is change the reason – and as a result, the motivation – to exercise.
Try this: Exercise to maintain muscle mass.
Maintain muscle and you reap a host of benefits. First, what makes muscle, keeps muscle. Muscle is metabolically active tissue. Muscle helps your body burn calories. It helps regulate your blood sugar. It gives your body its shape, curves, and contours. It allows you to perform everyday physical activities like picking up a bag of groceries, changing a tire, or spending your nights fighting crime without hurting yourself. Muscle helps you keep fit and prevents disease and allows you to recover faster from injury. And, of course, muscle makes you look better naked.
But there’s even more (and this is the most important part): Maintaining muscle and increasing fitness through strength training will make you feel great and motivate you to be disciplined in your eating. Feeling good is addictive. So is seeing results. Exercise – lifting appreciable weight – will have as big a psychological effect on you as a physiological one. Going out of your way to lose it – by restricting calories too much (for too long) and focusing on quantity of exercise rather than quality – is the exact opposite of what you want to do.
If all you love to do is steady-state cardio, by all means keep doing that. But add in a small amount of strength training and watch your results rise. You’ll feel better and stronger.
If you’re already doing some strength training, keep going. And change it up. Always challenge your muscles with different routines and exercises. Maintain and build that muscle. The results will be amazing.
Those are the real keys to fat loss. Retain your muscle by moving around and lifting heavy things, and let calorie-smart eating take care of everything else.