Why the old calorie restriction-and-cardio combo is a trap you need to avoid.
BY STEVE WRONA, C.S.C.S., CPT
It’s supposed to be simple: burn more calories than you eat on a daily basis to burn that stubborn body fat. But why does something that is so seemingly simple prove to be so difficult? What happens when eating less and moving more stops working, and why do some people work so tirelessly but see little to no success?
The problem with eating less and moving more is that it doesn’t seem to be an effective long-term strategy for keeping those pounds off. In fact, if you’ve tried dieting to lose weight in the past you’ve probably realized by now just how hard it is to achieve long-term weight loss. Restricting calories and doing cardio is a great way to lose weight in the short term, but the moment we decide to ease up on the structured cardio plan and go “off” our diet and back to a more normal way of eating we often see all that extra weight come back with a vengeance. Many people rebound from a diet and wind up even heavier than they were before they began.
The problem is that with a lack of good information about how to achieve lasting success and with so many mixed messages being spread in fitness media and the latest trends on social media, our heads spin and we seek the next quick fix or revert to what worked for us last time – eating less and moving more.
Here’s why this is such a terrible cycle and why this approach doesn’t work. Our daily calorie burn is a combination of a few different components. The most impactful of those components on our long-term success is our basal metabolic rate or BMR (the number of calories we burn at rest each day). The biggest factor in determining our BMR is our lean body mass (or lack thereof). A person with more muscle mass and more lean body mass will burn a heck of a lot more calories than somebody with very little muscle mass and less lean mass.
This is where we start to connect the dots and talk about why cardio and restrictive dieting is not helping you stay lean. Our bodies are fascinating machines. They can adapt to almost any situation and are constantly listening to the signals we are sending them through our behaviors so that they can adapt and become more efficient. Doing lots of cardio sends a signal that the body needs to get better and more efficient at doing lots of cardio.
Since cardio does not require a lot of muscle mass, one way our body adapts in response to cardio is by getting rid of excess muscle in an effort to make cardio less calorically demanding. In regards to diet, eating a tiny amount of calories for a period of time sends a signal that the body needs to adapt to having less available energy. This can also cause the body to get rid of some lean mass because muscle tissue requires a higher amount of calories to maintain and excess muscle is not vital for our survival.
Adaptations to cardio and restrictive dieting usually include a reduction in lean body mass which is sometimes quite significant. With less lean body mass comes a lower BMR and a lower overall daily calorie burn. We are left at the end of our diet with a slower metabolism than when we started.
When we go back “off” the diet it’s even easier to regain the lost weight since our metabolism is slower and we are likely eating the same way we did before our diet started. Now we’re heavier than before we began and we’ve done damage to our metabolism. Is this starting to make sense? How can we lose weight and keep it off if every time we try we gain it right back and slow our metabolism down even further? The real horror in this lies in its cyclical pattern.
A person who has undergone multiple diets and relied on cardio as their primary catalyst for calorie burn will most likely have done so much metabolic damage that they will be left in one of two places: !) They are heavier than ever before with less muscle mass, more body fat, and a metabolism that is so slow their old method of dieting and doing cardio seems to do nothing… or 2) They are skinny but not very muscular and the only way they can maintain that is by doing absurd amounts of physical activity and eating like a bird.
I don’t know about you, but to me both of those positions sound like a very frustrating prison. Luckily for you, for me, and for anyone in those scenarios, there is a solution: and it begins in the weight room.
I’ve spent my entire career trying to convince people of the many health benefits of strength training: A more aesthetically-pleasing body, an improved mood, a more youthful hormone profile, healthier blood lipids and cholesterol, decreased all-cause mortality, increased bone density, and less joint pain as a few would just be giving you the tip of the iceberg. In fact, there are few things in this world that provide as many benefits as a properly executed strength training program, and the biggest benefit when it comes to long-term fat loss is an increase in lean body mass.
When we build muscle by following a structured weight training program, we increase our BMR and boost our metabolism at rest.
Even just adding a few pounds of muscle can have a profound effect on our metabolism. The best part of all is that it doesn’t take much to effect positive change.
Most beginner and intermediate trainees can see incredible results with only 1 to 3 days per week of strength training the whole body in just 30 to 60 minutes per session. As we adapt and advance over time we can add additional workouts or spend a little more time per session, but for most people a minimal investment can provide a tremendous return. Strength training is like investing in your future. Each time you come to the gym and train with weights you are investing in your metabolism. By making small deposits week in and week out your metabolism will grow just like your 401K.
Over a few months or years of making these investments your BMR can increase by hundreds of calories per day and help your body burn more fat around the clock each day.
Someone who raises their BMR by 500 calories per day (ex. From 1500/day to 2000/day) will burn an additional POUND of body fat every single week while at rest.
That’s 52 pounds of body fat in a year just because we got our metabolism to function better! If you’re already at a healthy place and don’t want to lose 52 pounds of fat that’s fine, just think of how much additional food you can enjoy year-round all while maintaining a lean and healthy physique.
The one hurdle that we must overcome to get these benefits is the desire for instant gratification. Muscle isn’t built overnight and a damaged metabolism isn’t magically made healthy after a couple of weightlifting sessions. When you walk a mile into the woods you still have to walk a mile to get back out. This is why initially I would encourage those of you ready to try this path to put away the scale for a few months and focus on getting stronger.
Your body will begin to look and feel better, but as you gain muscle mass and start eating in a less restrictive way to fuel your metabolism you will probably not see many pounds fall off right away. What you will see is a reduction in body fat and an increase in muscle mass. Your belts will fit a little tighter and you’ll start to be able to lift heavier weights for more reps. You’ll also probably feel yourself getting hungrier each day. These are all positive signs that your metabolism is trending towards health.
Remember, we are looking for long-term fat loss not just a flash-in-the-pan crash diet that leaves you worse off than when you started. Once you’ve made a significant investment in your metabolism then you can begin with a mild caloric deficit and watch as your body fat melts off much easier than ever before. I’ve seen people go from overweight to fit and healthy by following this protocol and the best part is that they are eating more calories now than they did when they were overweight.
If you’ve struggled with unsuccessful diet and exercise programs in the past and are looking for long term success, don’t lose hope. The first step is to take it easy on yourself. You’re going to need to be nice to your body for a little while by feeding it well and starting an introductory weight training program. The best steps you can take are to seek help from a professional coach or trainer who can help you create a custom training program and work with you to understand what type of healthy nutrition your body needs to function its best.
I will be working with Robert Irvine and his team to continue to provide you with the best fitness information to help you stay empowered and thrive. In future articles we will explore the best way to begin with a functional strength training program and discuss how small changes can provide BIG results.
I look forward to providing you with guidance and information to help you all live healthier and more vibrant lives. Remember, the first step is always the hardest but if you can learn to enjoy the process you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish when you get the momentum rolling in the right direction. Now go invest in your health and watch your life get better, bit by bit.
Steve Wrona is a Tampa, FL-based personal trainer whose newest client is our very own Robert Irvine. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.