If you still exercise to “burn calories,” you have not yet realized the purpose of a physical training program and the importance that movement has in our lives. The least important thing about exercise is the number of calories you burn! And that’s what I’ll try to explain in this article.
The power of exercise goes far beyond calorie burning, caloric expenditure is just a (nice) side effect of the type of exercise we do. Exercise consists of potentiating the release of powerful molecules and hormones that “talk” to our body’s organs (it’s not just food that has this kind of influence), and that determines what’s going to happen. And usually, the higher the intensity, the more beneficial the hormonal response.
Therefore, a well-designed physical training program has more to do with increasing energy levels, movement precision, vigor, muscular strength, mobility, agility, speed, work capacity and with an improved hormonal profile.
The Calorie Fever
I still see a lot of people worried about the calories in their food, the calories they burn when they exercise, the calories they consume each day, and I ask: How did we get here? What kind of message is being propagated that made people so obsessed with calories? Is calorie counting that important? Let’s see.
In order to discover the amount of energy in food, scientists burn food samples in a bomb calorimeter. And, to my knowledge, a bomb calorimeter does not share the same physiology and genetic makeup as a human being. As far as I know, a bomb calorimeter does not depend on the functioning of the various systems in the human body which are the real players in the way energy is absorbed and used (examples: digestive, endocrine and nervous system). This way of thinking is most likely unsustainable and ineffective long-term. This way of thinking is too reductive and does not solve the main problem – people’s lack of education regarding the importance of what we eat throughout our lives. Is it just me who finds it strange that most people are more concerned about their cell phones, cars and computers than with the origin and composition of the food they eat?
In fact, just look around and you’ll acknowledge that this is not the path to follow!
It is true that if we have the goal of losing fat mass, we must create an energy deficit, that is, the balance between the amount of calories (energy) entering our body and the amount of energy (calories) burned, must be negative. That’s the number one rule in rigid weight loss programs and that’s why we see Biggest Loser contestants training several times a day.
(Note: I should remind you that the Biggest Loser is a contest in which the goal is to lose weight in the shortest time possible, it’s not a contest to see who gets out of there healthier – if this was the goal probably there was no audience).
However, there is a lot more to be said. There are good calories and bad calories. The foods we eat, besides having a certain number of calories (which can be very difficult to determine with accuracy and can be highly variable), also have different properties with respect to their composition of macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates) and micronutrients (minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals). These bioactive properties and compounds are what makes the difference and what should be studied preferentially. In my way of looking at things, it is more logical to first check the functionality of food (i.e. how its nutrients work) and then look at its caloric density, which can also be more or less functional depending on the objectives, morphology and specific conditions of each individual.
(Note: If you still think low fat diets are the most suitable for weight loss check the following study published in 2003 in the New England Journal of Medicine here, where it was shown that people on a high-fat diet lost more weight as those on a low-fat diet, the diet generally recommended by leading health organizations. But, of course, adherence to the diet will be the most important factor).
Back to calories…
Because the absorption of these nutrients will depend on the functioning of our digestive system – which in turn is governed by the endocrine system (think of hormones) and the nervous system (think of neurotransmitters) – and the health of the organs involved in the digestion process (mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, small intestine, large intestine, liver, gallbladder), it becomes easy to understand that the web of relationships in the human body is much more complex than simple calorie counting. Albert Einstein has a quote that fits perfectly here: “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
The Power of Exercise
Anyone that is minimally informed about exercise already knows that long distance aerobic training is not the best choice for improving body composition and may even have opposite effects (catabolic effects) due to the pronounced increase in cortisol levels.
This has been known for a long time but it’s always important to remember. This study published by Tremblay, Simoneau and Bouchard in 1994, showed that the group that did 15 weeks of interval training burned NINE TIMES more fat than the group that did aerobic training. And this was in half of the time period!
What you need to “burn calories” is to increase the intensity of your workouts for certain periods of time, it’s this type of stimulus that will increase your metabolism and accelerate fat loss. In this study, a 30-minute training session of metabolic resistance training caused a 38-hour increase in metabolism – the famous afterburn effect or EPOC (post-exercise oxygen consumption). Let’s put this into perspective. Let’s say you trained this way on Friday morning. With this training method your body will still be in a “fat burning” mode on Saturday night, when you’re having dinner with your friends or with your boyfriend / girlfriend.
And why do I insist on combining a good diet with good training? Because I’m aware of the evidence on this topic. This study from 1999 showed that those who did aerobic training and strength training on a low calorie diet burned 44% more fat than those who merely followed dietary guidelines. As I’ve been saying, diet is the most important component for those people who want to lose fat, however, once that aspect is assured, only strength training and interval training can actually bring your results to a higher level. In my opinion, the fact that this study was based on a low-calorie diet combined with aerobic training is limiting, but we have to bear in mind that these are usually the guidelines of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The guidelines are intended to facilitate nutritional guidance offered by practitioners, but unfortunately that is not what I have observed when I discuss these issues with some colleagues.
I think you have already realized that the type of training you do can be a great ally to put your body in an energy deficit and consequently in fat burning status. Now I will try to explain why this is the least important of all. Stay with me!
Like nutrition, physical exercise is key to improve health, performance and body composition. You’re probably tired of hearing this. But it’s not any kind of physical exercise that works. Doing hundreds of crunches to lose belly fat, using all the gym machinery, running 10 miles a day, doing Pilates twice a week and doing 100 power cleans in the shortest time possible is not enough. You can call it physical exercise if you want, but it’s not just this kind of physical exercise our body needs. A more comprehensive approach is needed.
We need Good Movement (we shouldn’t start running in the first place)
The concept of “move more for your health” is insufficient for our real needs and to improve quality of life. We need good movement, we need to acquire movement competency in the first place. I am talking about the ability to perform fundamental movements with good form. Fundamental movement patterns such as squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, throwing, carrying, walking, running and jumping.
From my point of view, running should be the last step in this process and yet what we most frequently see is people running all crooked and with an obvious deficit in muscle strength. But the problem is not theirs, they are trying to do something for their health (and probably that’s all they know), the problem is that most of them are not aware that running is a skill, which requires preparation, practice and training. Cristiano Ronaldo did not become the best player in the World over night, it took many hours of training (in the field and in the gym) to reach this level. Although it’s relatively easy and affordable for anyone to put on their shoes and just go out for a run, running also requires preparation, practice and training (technical and physical).
It is necessary to have stability, mobility, strength (every step we take on the ground is subject to the action of gravity and the speed we run, generating reaction forces of 2 to 5 times our body weight), symmetry, quality of movement and good musculoskeletal health. Running to get healthy or fit is one of the greatest physical distresses on our body if we don’t have a solid foundation. First, you need to be in good shape to run. If you don’t hone good movement skills, you are more likely to get injured. According to the available literature, the incidence rate of injury in runners may exceed 90%, this is more than any other sport. Plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, patellar tendonitis and patellofemoral pain are just a few examples. Check this systematic review if you’re interested in learning more.
Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-running and I admire the effort and suffering capacity of all runners. I think we should all be able to run (by the way, that’s how we evolved as a species), the problem is that most people who run are not properly prepared to run and there are fundamental learning steps that should not be overlooked in order to prevent structural imbalances in the musculoskeletal system and injuries. Cleary the simplistic idea of “move more” is not enough.
A new way to look at training
Different types of training can affect the way our genes work and how they interact with our cells. With good training it’s possible to decrease chronic inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity, strengthen the cardiovascular system, improve lipid profile, slow down normal aging, burn fat (as we’ve seen in more detail above), increase confidence and self-esteem, increase energy levels, increase mental strength, improve a number of physical skills that we need for our daily life activities or sports practice (such as strength, stability, mobility, balance, speed, agility) and our different energy systems (ATP-CP, glycolytic, and oxidative). As we age, these skills naturally decline, but the fact is that with a more comprehensive training program it is possible to reverse and / or at least mitigate this decline.
Most people think that genes are the brain of the cell, they believe that if genes don’t tell you what to do, the cell dies. But if you remove the genes from the cell, the cell is still alive, eliminating waste products and behaving just like another cell. So, instead of genes being the brain of the cell, think of genes as your instruction / repair manual. When a worn part of the cell needs to be repaired or when new substances need to be produced, genes will give instructions for doing so.
Every cell in our body is surrounded by a fatty membrane, which is filled with thousands of receptors. These receptors receive information from different parts of the body and pass this information into the cell to form / encode new proteins, burn more or less fat, etc. (Note: this is why it’s important to eat good fats and avoid the hydrogenated fats present in most processed foods so that the cell membrane is more permeable to nutrient delivery.) It’s this membrane with receptors the cell command center so if we remove these membrane receptors, the cells die. This means that cell function is highly influenced by external factors, namely through hormones and other molecules that bind to these receptors.
These messenger molecules are not randomly created by our body, they are created according to our lifestyle, diet, thoughts, behaviors, temperature, light, sound and… our type of training. It’s possible to be born with some defective genes – for example BRCA 1 and BRCA 2, which increase the risk for breast cancer – but it’s these messenger molecules / hormones that will determine the degree of activation of these genes. Therefore, controlling these hormones means controlling the body.
(Note: Don’t you find it strange that almost 90% of health care costs is related to treat health conditions, while 80% of health problems / diseases arise as a consequence of our lifestyle and the environment we’re exposed to? Check this TED talk from Dan Buettner to realize why we are walking in the wrong direction).
High-intensity exercise is the one that induces a more favorable hormonal environment, with an increase in hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone and IGF-1, interleukins with an important role in inflammation (IL-6), muscle tissue maintenance (IL-15) and growing of new blood vessels (IL-8), lactic acid (which has the ability to keep us young by stimulating the release of testosterone and growth hormone) and nitric oxide, a vasodilator which plays a key role in regulating blood pressure, muscle strength and erectile dysfunction. Unfortunately, long running does not produce the same effects. Compound movements, which require a combination of strength and stamina, in short periods of time, are those that will put your muscles to “talk” more with your body. Burning calories is only a minor side effect when compared to the amount of hormones and other signaling molecules that influence how our body works.
To be clear, we are talking about intensity coupled with movement quality. Intensity coupled with bad movement will have the opposite effect: INJURY.
It’s urgent to give rise to a new mentality on training the movement skills that we will need throughout our lives. And this is a serious limitation of most group classes in conventional gyms. The instructors are obliged to follow a certain beat and choreography. Individualized feedback is almost non-existent. People don’t have time to understand or to learn the movements. And no one learns anything if they don’t know what it’s for, no one learns anything if they don’t understand how it’s supposed to feel and its practical implications. In addition, most machines in gyms annihilate the sensory and body perception that we, humans, need. We live in a three-dimensional world, in a world of constant adaptation and spatial exploration, so it makes no sense that machines and choreographies of group classes dictate the rules of our movement.
And why is it important to learn efficient movements? First, an efficient movement happens when a body is able to produce force through a coordinated action between the various body segments without energy leaks and demonstrating a natural ability to exploit maximum range of motion. Second, it’s movement that will allow you to play more time with your children, change the furniture at home, improve your day-to-day performance and your performance in your recreational activities.
Look at this type of training as the foundation, the support you need to get stronger, faster, smarter, more agile, more competent in a series of physical attributes that will allow you to perform better in the activities you enjoy doing. Would you like to start playing tennis? golf? volleyball? Would you like to start surfing? paddle board? weightlifting? powerlifting? dance? climbing? triathlon? Would you like to be faster when you play football with your friends during on weekends? Obviously, each modality has its specific abilities, but they all share the same foundation: human being’s adaptability capacity. To improve these specific skills safely, you first need to improve your fundamental movement patterns. And to sustainably keep improving these fundamental movement patterns, you need to train better and respect the developmental stages of each one.
To sum up, the great advantage of better training (and I remind you what we learned about the power of exercise, good movement and a new way of looking at training) is to improve your quality of life, maximize your performance and, above all, giving you the freedom and autonomy to choose the activity / sport that you always wanted to try but never had the courage or opportunity to start off.
Think about these things next time you go to the gym to walk on the treadmill with your headphones on and watch some TV series for 40 minutes while looking at the calories burned on the monitor and at the workouts or exercises other people are doing.
See you soon!
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