Patricia recently expressed to me her feelings of frustration with her weight loss efforts. She was doing aerobics, weights, and karate classes every week. Not only that, she was also doing three hour ballroom dancing sessions three times a week. Additionally, she was also doing the “Three Day Diet” (something I do not recommend, by the way, but let’s save that for another article) at regular intervals. She lost five pounds in the beginning of this grueling routine and then – nothing. Other professionals I talk to who work in the fitness and weight-loss industries can testify to the mystery of a client who exercises like a maniac and eats like the proverbial bird and still doesn’t lose weight.
In the past, researchers explained the weight loss problems of men and women like Patricia as one of non-compliance. In other words, they “claimed” to be exercising a lot and eating very little but in reality they were “cheating” and that’s the real reason why they couldn’t lose weight.
For sure, that’s what may have been happening to some of them because it is well known that many people will under-report the amount of food they eat and over-report the amount of exercise they do. However, weight management researchers now realize that eating too little and exercising too much can really be detrimental to weight loss. Scientists do not claim to have all the answers but they do have some theories as to why the exercise/diet paradox occurs.
The “survival mechanism” theory.
Scientists believe that weight loss can be difficult because you are fighting against survival mechanisms that have evolved over the centuries to make sure that you can endure famine and deprivation. This is why, on the average, an adult can survive forty plus days with very little food.
These survival mechanisms worked wonderfully in a time when food was scarce and people had to do hard physical labor but they backfire in a society of supermarkets and labor-saving appliances like cars. When you over-exercise and diet stringently, your body doesn’t realize that you are doing it on purpose because you want to lose weight. It thinks you are not getting enough food and, on top of that, you have to work hard physically. In short, it thinks you are going to die unless it does something to save you.
Through still unclear ways, the body is capable of adapting to undesirable conditions by actually reducing its energy requirements or by conserving calories. It also increases your appetite to entice you to eat (though some people would say they need very little enticing!).
The “set point” theory.
Another theory that scientists like to use to explain why a person doesn’t lose weight in spite of exercising too much and eating too little is the set point theory. It states that body-fat percentage may be controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain, and may be partly hereditary. The body seems to have a specific weight set point at which it feels “comfortable”.
Any attempt to deviate from the set point through dietary restriction and/or excessive exercise will be counteracted by the body’s attempt to decrease basal metabolic rate (the minimum amount of calories your body needs to maintain vital functions like temperature and heart beat) and to increase appetite. Scientists also suspect that the body increases the amount of lipogenic (fat-hoarding) enzymes and decreases the amount of lipolytic (fat-releasing) enzymes to maintain the set point weight.
Overly restrictive diets may lower metabolic rate.
It has been observed by researchers that diets with less than 1,200 calories for women and less than 1,500 calories for men can provoke a loss of lean body tissue and body water along with fat. Lean body mass is the primary component that determines a person’s basal metabolic rate. Scientists speculate that because of this loss of lean body mass, the body doesn’t require as many calories to maintain itself.
Newer research indicates that this loss of lean body mass is temporary and that eventually the body regains the lost lean tissue. In the interim, however, the dieter is very vulnerable to weight gain in the form of fat because even if he or she eats their normal amount of calories, the body no longer needs as much.
Another problem with eating very little food is that your diet-induced thermogenesis (the amount of calories needed to digest, absorb, and metabolize food) is reduced. Since you are consuming very little calories, the body, in turn, doesn’t have to burn as many calories digesting and absorbing the food.
Excessive exercise just as bad as over-zealous dieting.
Exercise is one of the essential factors in weight loss and weight maintenance but excessive exercise (especially aerobic type exercise) can have just the opposite effect. It activates the body’s survival mechanisms so the body becomes more efficient at storing and using the calories that are being eaten. If you had to roam a desert for days in search of food, this would be good news. It means your body could sustain itself on less food or fewer calories until you killed a wild donkey or camel for your next meal. However, if you are the average person today trying desperately to lose weight, this is definitely depressing news.
Moderation is still the magic word.
Moderation is still the solution to consistent and successful weight loss according to weight management experts like Nancy Rodriguez, Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences at the University of Connecticut. A moderate increase in exercise and a moderate decrease in caloric intake are necessary so the body is fooled into thinking all is well and the survival mechanisms are not activated. However, the moderate approach equals slow weight loss (half a pound to two pounds a week) which requires patience and consistency – two virtues sorely lacking in most of us.
So, if you find yourself in Patricia’s shoes, resist the temptation to diet and exercise excessively – it will only have the opposite effect plus you might get so burned out with the whole situation that you may give up all attempts at exercising and eating properly!