(I’m still on the road with the family.  We’re somewhere in Arkansas tonight, and I’ve got internet access for the first time in a couple of days.  That gives me a chance to post a guest column by Josef Brandenburg, who I first heard about when Jimmy Moore interviewed him for a podcast show.  Josef’s column follows …)

Exercise Bologna – The Single Biggest Exercise Myth

by Josef Brandenburg

Pretty much everything that you’ve been told about exercise is bunk.  (Everything beyond the fact that you need to do it.)  It’s this misinformation in your head that is killing your results and probably your motivation too.  Who likes doing something when you don’t actually get rewarded for it?

Tom Naughton Does Something Stupid (Besides Letting Me Write for His Blog)

In the movie Fat Head (which rocks), Tom steps up his workouts by walking for an hour every single day because he thinks that this will actually do something to accelerate his weight loss beyond his reduced carb all fast-food diet.  Tom’s walking was probably a complete waste of time.  Time he could have spent working on his stand up act – which he desperately needs :-).

(Note from Tom:  Mike Eades told me the same thing … the extra walking is fine, but it does diddly for weight loss.  Oh well; I listen to books when I walk, so it was extra reading time.)

When I was a fat guy – 236 pounds (at 5 foot 10) with a 40.25 inch waist, and 26% body-fat (technically obese) I worked out for 11+ hours per week.  (Sorry, I was too embarrassed to have anyone else take this picture.  I had to do it in the mirror.)

I would wake up at 5am, drive to the gym, hop on some machine and go hard for an hour.  Then I would come back at night do some body-builder weight lifting, and another 35 to 45 min of steady state aerobic exercise. (In case you’re wondering, that does NOT leave time for a life.)

The funny thing is that I got fatter doing these twice-a-day workouts, but the whole time I was thinking to myself, “Damnit, you fat bastard, you need to work out more!  You need to burn more calories!”

How could I have possibly exercised any more?

Jogging Is BS

The whole idea that endurance exercise, like jogging, will make you thin came from the observation that elite endurance athletes are thin.  Without any reason for doing so, folks in the exercise “science” community concluded that endurance athletes were thin because they did lots of slow, long distance work.

This kind of “logic” is like Tom’s post about his plan to start playing basketball until he hits 6 foot 5.  You know:  basketball players are tall, so if I play ball long enough I’ll get tall too.

The “endurance exercise makes people thin” is fine as a theory if you plan on testing it and then responding to the actual evidence, but not as religious doctrine.

So, What Does The Research Have To Say?

The USDA came out with their recommendation to do 60-90 minutes of aerobics for fat-loss in 2005. The first ever research study on the efficacy of their advice didn’t come out until late 2007. Do you know what the study said?

Men who did moderate to vigorous (think your target heart rate zone) exercise for over 60 minutes per day, 6 days per week, for an entire year lost only 6.5lbs of body fat! That is a half pound per month, for more than 6 hours of exercise per week.  Women barely lost 4lbs! (1)

So, if you’re a woman with 20lbs to lose, all you’d need is 20 hours of aerobic exercise per week and you’d be set in 12 months!

So, What About Getting Fat Folks To Run Marathons?

The Danish thought of this in 1989 – if 2 hours per week won’t fix ’em, then we’ll make them run a marathon.  After a grueling 18 month training program to get their subjects ready for a marathon (26.2 MILES) here are the results:

•    The men dropped 5 pounds of body fat
•    The women dropped no body fat at all (2)

So, if you’re a man looking to drop 40 pounds, then you just need to work up to a leisurely 210mile run by quitting your job and abandoning your family.  And, if you’re a woman, it just seems hopeless – sorry.  (Actually, it seems ironic, but a good chunk of my female clients come to me after having done a marathon or two.  They usually end up fatter a few months after the event.)

Well, What About Real Life?

How well does endurance exercise work for regular people who are only going to go to the gym three days per week?  How well does “sensible” advice like “do 40 min, 3 days per week in your ‘target heart rate zone’,” work?

Not very well. Researchers in Australia had their subjects do 40min of steady-state aerobic exercise, 3 days per week (you know, 40min in your “target heart rate zone”).  Well, they gained a pound of fat on average over the course of 15 weeks. (3)

Is All Exercise Worthless For Weight Loss?

No. The good news is that there is exercise that works really well for improving body composition (less fat, more muscle), and it’s more fun, takes less time, and can actually enhance your ability to move.  Its called metabolic resistance training (MRT).  (Whereas treadmill jogging is actually horrible for your knees, messes up the way your muscles are supposed to function, and reduces flexibility.  But, that is another post.)

10 months after the above picture of me in my parent’s bathroom mirror I looked like this:

* 195 pounds
* 9% body-fat
* 31.5 inch waist
* same pair of blue Nike shorts

In addition to getting on a low-carb diet (on which I ate more calories), I also completely changed my workout program.  I went from aerobic (endurance) exercise twice-a-day to never doing aerobics at all.  My 11+ hours of gym torture turned into only 3 or 4 hours a week of relatively fun MRT workouts.

I know that a lot of you reading this are thinking, “oh, that’s just anecdotal.  What if it was just the low carb diet?  I want references!”

You’re right, it is anecdotal.  I don’t have published references to support this theory.

However, I do have lots and lots of anecdotal experience with clients over many years.  I’d be living with my parents if I couldn’t deliver on my promises, so the fact that I can pay my mortgage has to be good for something.  I also know a lot of other coaches with 10 and 20 years of records with their clients who’ve come to the same conclusions.

For example, Alwyn Cosgrove has owned Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, CA for 10 years.  He’s got 300 members that are all doing MRT workouts based on his system, and he’s been tracking their results the whole time.  That is a lot of data.  If you consider the fact that most University exercise studies are done with 30 people for 12 weeks, its probably better data.

What Is MRT?

An MRT workout would look like this:

First do 12 squats with a weight you could only do 15 reps, then with no rest, go do 12 push-ups (pick a variation you could only do 15 reps of).  Rest 1min.  Repeat for 4 or 5 rounds.  That should take 10 to 13min.

Second do 12 lunges with a weight you could only do 15 reps, then with no rest go do 12 rows with a weight that you could only do 15 reps with.  Rest 1 min.  Repeat for 4 or 5 rounds.  This will take you about 13 to 17min.

Third, finish up with a nice interval workout:  Go outside and run really fast for 30sec, then walk for 1 min.  Repeat for 6 rounds.  This will take you about 10min.

Cool down, stretch, and you’re done.

Here’s my theory on how it works:  It’s not about the calories burned.  Your body is going to put them back by making your hungry, reducing your spontaneous movement, reducing your body temperature, and/or some other means or combination of methods.  (The 24 hour graphs of activity levels of overweight people on exercise programs are really neat – you can see their body compensate by reducing all other movement unconsciously.  Of course the ass@#$% who publish this stuff – who are all thin – interpret this by telling these fat people that they need to exert more conscious effort to move more all day long.)

Its mostly about carbs and hormones.  Your body has three energy sources – super-short, short and long term.  For over-simplification all we care about is the short term – anaerobic glycolysis – that is the zone in which your body just burns carbs for fuel.  Long term burns a lot of fat (not actually useful for fat-loss), and the super-short term uses up the ATP (energy) that your cells have on hand.

We want to do workouts that will drain the carbs (glycogen) out of your muscles.  When we deplete your glycogen stores you will have increased insulin sensitivity for the next 36 hours (or your next high carb meal).  Since body-fat is fundamentally regulated by insulin, if we can get your body to secrete less insulin for a day and a half, you will be leaner.  (4-7)

Short bursts of intense exercise that exhausts you in the 30-90 sec range will maximize glycogen depletion, and thus body-fat lost.

There is also some icing on the cake stuff – like that intense exercise will release fat-burning catecholamines like adrenaline and noradrenalin.  But, if insulin levels are high, then the catecholamines won’t do anything.

Low carb diets work really well alone, but low carb + MRT works really fast.

Josef Brandenburg is the author of The Body You Want and The Body You Want A to Z, and an award-winning Washington, DC based personal trainer who specializes in helping people create the bodies they want in the time that they actually have.  You can get a free copy of his new CD “Why ‘Eat Less and Exercise More’ Is The Worst Advice Ever” right here.

References

1. McTiernan, Anne, et. al. Exercise Effect on Weight and Body Fat in Men and Women. Obesity (2007) 15, 1496-1512

2. Janssen, G. M., et al.  Food intake and body composition in novice athletes during a training period to run a marathon. International journal of sports medicine, May 1989; 10(1 suppl.):s17-21

3. Trapp EG and Boucher SH. Fat loss following 15 weeks of high intensity, intermittent cycle training. Fat Loss Laboratory, Faculty of Medicine, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

4. Joslin. Elliot. Et al. Joslin’s Diabetes Mellitus. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 13th edition, 1994

5. Nussey, Stephen. et al. Endocrinology: An Integrated Approach. Informa HealthCare, 1st edition, 2001

6. Kronenberg MD, Henry M. et al. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. Saunders. 11th edition, 2008

7. Lehninger, Albert. Et al. Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry. W. H. Freeman. 5th edition. 2008

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21 Responses to “Guest Post: Exercise Bologna”
  1. Cynthia says:

    I think you’re right that the theory that running makes you thin is like the theory that if you just ate like thin people you’d be thin. People who are thin enjoy running more, and they’re able to maximize the power to weight ratio, so they are good at it too. That said, I don’t think endurance/aerobic exercise is bad. The problem is that the running crowd are still carboholics! They act as if burning one molecule of glucose requires that it be replaced pronto. Unless you are an elite athlete training for hours a day, you just don’t have to try that hard to replace your glycogen stores. And not replacing them right away means that your muscles remain more insulin sensitive for longer- a good thing for most of us. On the other hand, how much glycogen can you really burn in 90 second bursts repeated a few times? I believe it is effective to increase insulin transporters on muscle cells, but doubt that it makes a serious dent in total stores. That’s why low or at least lower carb is still a good idea, no matter what kind of exercise you enjoy, IMO.

  2. Ellen says:

    Love this line:

    “Since body-fat is fundamentally regulated by insulin, if we can get your body to secrete less insulin for a day and a half, you will be leaner. ”

    I wonder if this is why intermittent fasting also helps with weight loss.. seems to me that if you don’t eat for 18-24 hours, you are also reducing your insulin load.

    Tom, hope the trip is going well, and that the new place is better than the old place. 🙂

  3. Great article! Another important aspect about modern exercise misinformation aside from not being effective for weight loss is that it promotes poor health.

    Slaving away on a cardio machine on a daily basis, or close to it, is a significant physiological burden and is an excellent way to run yourself into the ground by causing overuse injuries and adrenal fatigue … all while not losing any weight. To make matters worse, most people who do this are merely trying to compensate for a poor diet. In my opinion, diet is the most important aspect of weight loss by a large margin, but MRT and/or high intensity interval training are definitely great ways to accelerate it and improve fitness.

  4. Dave says:

    Very nice.

    I’m going to claim that any successful weight loss regimen can be described in terms on the effect on insulin (that’s oversimplified, but insulin seems to be the big daddy of metabolism). I’m going to try and blog on this soon, but it seems to unify all of the various disparate theories. I think even a low-fat diet will reduce insulin somewhat (fat causes secretion of hormones that amplify insulin response).

    Based on this theory, low-carb + MRT should be the most effective fat loss route, given that your problem is dietary induced insulin resistance (which is probably the case for most people).

  5. Matt says:

    @Cynthia: Interval training depletes glycogen faster than any other form of exercise. Second is weight training, last is low-intensity steady-state cardio.

    @Ellen: That’s exactly why IF works so well. Not only does insulin return to baseline fairly quickly, the faster’s insulin sensitivity increases exponentially throughout the fast, peaking at 24 hours.

  6. Jeanne says:

    I agree.
    My only criticism of Fathead, the movie, was the emphasis on exercise to reduce fat. I didn’t agree with it, and I think it confused the primary focus of the film; that we have been given bad nutritional advice over the past 40 years.

  7. The human body only has about 300g total glycogen in liver & muscle stores – that’s only 1,200 calories worth of carbs. You can easily burn up 1/2 of that or more in 60min of intense total body exercise.

    Using my current stats – 210lbs at 10% body-fat, on the 40min workout above I would burn off 668 calories (almost all from carbs) according to Dr. John Berardi’s exercise expenditure formula. (precisionnutrition.com)

  8. Gerard Pinzone says:

    Josef,

    I saw one of your videos on Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream on YouTube. Lots of sugar free chocolate contains a sugar substitute called Maltitol. This is not a satisfactory low-carb additive. I’e head lots of so-called low carb “treats” use this sweeter even though it increases insulin levels almost as much as sugar. Can you recommend a sugar free chocolate to use?

  9. Jocelyn R says:

    Hmmm…. me thinks it sounds like CrossFit 🙂 If you’re interested in high intensity training, http://www.crossfit.com is probably going to be the best resource you’ll find anywhere on the internet and it’s all free.

    It goes by many names: you call it MRT, bodybuilding coach Scott Abel calls it Met-Con short for Metabolic Conditioning, some call it High Intensity, or whatever. What some trainers (the good ones) discovered – that intensity exercise is the key to results – Glassman and the CrossFit crew took and distributed around the world and made it available to not just elite athletes, but regular folks. They may not have been the first to discover intensity, but they sure seem to be the ones spreading it around the fitness world.

    Josef – whether or not you’re a CrossFitter, per se, it’s nice to see someone who has seen the light that bicep curls on a bosu ball and hours on the elliptical trainer are not the keys to success. Thanks for the great guest post!

    Tom – Love your blog, as always! We’re linking to this post on our website (www.crossfitbrio.com) hope you don’t mind! best of luck with the move!

  10. D says:

    I’m so glad that aerobic exercise isn’t the be-all, end-all way to lose weight. It’s one of the most boring things I can think of doing. Walking for enjoyment is so much nicer than huffing & puffing to try to lose weight.

    As for the MRT training, can anyone offer some modified exercises for those of us with arthritic knees and hips? Squats, lunges and push-ups would be extremely difficult, but those of us with these health problems would like to be able to do some sort of MRT training. (Just getting down on the floor to do a push-up would be difficult; trying to get back up off the floor might be downright impossible!)

    There are a large number of us baby-boomers who would love to lose fat and gain muscle, but a lot of us have creaky joints, and we don’t want to hurt ourselves. Anyone out there who can help?

  11. Gerard,

    Just use 100% unsweetened chocolate, chop it up and the sweetness of the ice cream + a pinch of salt will take care of the bitterness.

  12. Jorge says:

    How did the tatoo moved from the right pec side of the body (overweight picture) to the left side (lean picture)?

    Otherwise, very inspirational…

    In the “before” picture, Josef took his own picture in a mirror, so you’re seeing the mirror-image.

  13. Gerard Pinzone says:

    Thanks for the tip, Josef! I’m getting my wife a Cuisinart ICE-30BC Ice Cream Maker. Consumer Reports rated it best and you don’t need any ice or rock salt. It was on sale a few days ago, and thanks to your video, I made the purchase.

  14. Jocelyn R says:

    @ D re: exercises for baby boomers…

    The most important thing you’ll need to work on is maintaining your “functional” movements like sitting down and standing up (a squat), picking things up off the ground (a deadlift), pushing and pulling on things, etc. They aren’t imaginary movements that only exist in a gym. Those are the movements that you’ll need every day for the rest of your life to keep yourself out of a wheelchair and out of a nursing home.

    Arthritic knees and hips only amplifies the need to keep your muslce strong to take the pressure off your joints. Practice squating to a chair or the couch every day. You can do pushups against a counter top or the edge of the couch, if you can’t get all the way down on the ground. There are endless way to scale those functional movements to something that suits your particular abilities. Probably the best thing to do though would be find a trainer who knows what they’re doing.

    My mom has arthritis in her knees from too many years of being overweight. She started working out 3 years ago at age 54. Through CrossFit and a caveman style diets, she’s lost 80lbs, down to a svelt 125lbs, and she can do things she never imagined possible. Her knees still give her grief sometimes, but she can squat down to full depth, run the stairs, play on the floor with little kids, and deadlift more than she weighs. Bad a$$ all around! It’s never too late to start and don’t let the physical afflictions or loss of certain functions hold you back!

  15. Sue says:

    Josef, do you do just low carb or with carb ups aswell?

  16. Good post and good advice, Josef.

    Back in 2001 or so, at about 205 (5’10) I decided to walk and I did so religiously for 5 years. That’s how long it took to finally get it that walking wasn’t the answer. By then, and over 6,000 miles, I weighed 230.

    I do low carb, and only work out 1 hour per week, solid resistance training. I still walk for enjoyment (and for the doggies) and do some sprints now and then.

  17. Dana says:

    There were only two ways I ever lost weight along with exercise–when I was in Army basic training, and when I was undernourished as a civilian. Basically in the latter case it coincided with me being too poor to afford anything better than beans, pasta, and rice, and not very much of those either. The second time that happened I was donating plasma to buy groceries. Probably I was losing lean tissue.

    I like cardio, but I like dancing. And yet I don’t do cardio because what happens is the instructor doesn’t take the time to teach you the moves, then tells you to just move along with the music if you can’t keep up. If cardio’s so necessary to health then the women I saw in my last class who could barely do anything on account of their age and fitness level weren’t doing themselves any good at all.

    Oh, and about 80 percent of us were fat. So much for the notion that fat people don’t exercise.

    Some years ago, a very trim friend of mine got a guest pass at my health club and joined me for a Nautilus workout. I could tell he was chagrined to discover he couldn’t lift nearly as much as I could. He was pretty image-conscious and probably had assumed my fat belly meant I was in lousy shape overall.

  18. I don’t “carb up.” I used to be phobic that my strength would suffer or that my muscles would deflate for lack of dietary carbs, but, surprise surprise, the exercise “science” folks are wrong about that too! Just like they’re wrong about hamstrings being knee flexors, aerobic exercise, etc.

    I am bigger, leaner, and stronger and, at least to me, my muscles look “full” with a VERY low carb diet all the time.

    The only thing that happens when I eat a bunch of extra carbs is that my fat cells swell up almost instantaneously and I get gas.

  19. dylan says:

    I like your MRT training idea. If I told you your could accomplish the theory of this and much more in a shorter amount of time (normally 20 per workout), would that be something you’d be interested in?
    As a couple comments mentioned – it’s called crossfit. Find an affiliate in your area, pay the 150 a month – you get personal trainer level attention, so really it’s a deal compared to a box gym – and get those results more efficiently. Also, the gyms are smaller and more like a community where you know most of the people there, and they all support each other. You want science behind why it works go to the website crossfit.com and listen to the videos, read the publications. AND it’s fun!

    Lastly, it was your diet that had the most effect.

  20. Nick Beghtol says:

    The article was a pleasure to read. I’m a personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach that works with all ages and body types. All of my clients are doing some form of MRT training depending on what stage of training they are in whether it stabilization, strength, or power. I also think that diet plays a huge factor as well as what is put into your workout and what comes out of your workouts. With that said, to the “Crossfitters,” as they call themselves, I think it is a very good strength and conditioning program for some. And yes it does cover your functional movements as well as add in good intensity to your workouts. But I have done the whole Crossfit thing and even worked at one. I don’ think it is for everyone. Most people that are having a hard time with their weight are not your active 18-30 old person. So, how do you teach your 35-55 year old to snatch, clean and jerk when thrown into a WOD and asked to do it at 100 miles an hour. Most people that are overweight are already struggling with poor postural alignment, bad knees, bad hips, and lower back pain. Crossfit is an easy way to get injured especially if the movements were never leaned correctly. In order to learn the movements it takes time and taking your time defeats the purpose of MRT training. All in all, Crossfit is a good solution for some, but for the average person that is truly struggling with weight loss and wants to stay out of a wheelchair there is still hope without Crossfit.

    I believe it’s important to find the exercise program that works for you. I know some people benefit from yoga, for example, and perhaps I would too, but frankly, it bores the bejeezus out of me, so I won’t stick with it. But I like lifting weights and taking my long walks. I’ve never tried CrossFit, but who knows, maybe someday I’ll give it a look.

  21. I’ve been to and watched several Crossfit workouts and multiple locations, and I have never, ever, ever seen a single person get in and out in 20min.

    It’s an hour or more without exception.

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