Your workout isn’t working for you because you’re working out too hard.
There’s a common misconception amongst cardio-class devotees, running junkies, and bootcamp buffs that more = better.
As a doctor, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern among our high-functioning, uber-productive patients: Every hour of their day is accounted for, morning to night, with a very early start, a late finish, and a high intensity workout wedged in between a 10-hour workday and a full social calendar.
It sounds like modern life. What’s the big deal?
The problem with living this way is you’re working against your health goals. Eating a low-calorie diet, sweating your heart out every day, and only sleeping 5-6 hours a night is not going to help you lose weight, firm up, and lose belly fat, no matter how hard you try.
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As great as the energy is at the latest Class Pass craze, and as much as you feel like you got a great workout, you might be jeopardizing your own chances of achieving your body composition goals.
Here’s what’s working against you, and what to do about it:
1. You’re trying to out-exercise your diet, but it’s not possible.
When you’re blowing through 500-600 calories in an hour during one of these workout classes, your body is going to be in a catabolic state, breaking down muscle once the available stored sugar is gone. Our hunger afterwards usually overshoots the target in terms of replenishment. If body recomposition or weight loss is your goal, you should be focusing on:
- Lots of stress-free, slow movement a few days a week
- Anabolic stimulus through weightlifting
- Growth-hormone boosting with short interval workouts.
2. You’re elevating your cortisol.
A master circadian regulator, cortisol naturally peaks upon waking, creating a temporary catabolic state in the body. Often thought of mainly as a stress hormone, cortisol is actually instrumental as the “waking” hormone, liberating energy as carbs, fat, and amino acids for use in the early daytime hours. This is really the only time during the day it should be elevated, so let it do its work!
3. You’re staying in a catabolic > anabolic state.
If you’re doing a workout for 45 min to an hour, I define it as high-intensity cardio, which when in a calorie restricted state, or when done 4-5x+ per week, becomes a catabolic activity. That means your body is breaking down lean mass to create glucose for the workout, and because your stress hormone is elevated, eating afterwards is more likely to result in stored calories as fat.
4. You’re not applying progressive overload.
Your body responds to progressive overload—focused movements with a progression in either reps, weight, or sets over time. If you just show up at a class and trash your body, it doesn’t have anything to adapt to, and your lean mass will suffer for it. A great place to start is a 5×8 program (5 sets of 6-8 reps) across 4-5 lifts – squat, deadlift, overhead press, and pullups, for example.
5. You’re using exercise to compensate for your diet.
Exercise alone has never been shown to cause weight loss. It’s great for keeping up lean mass, staying healthy and boosting your endorphins, but don’t be under the impression that more=better when it comes to burning off those calories with hours of cardio. What you eat matters.
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Exercise should be fun, not stressful, and it should add to your life, not be a burden. Moderation and consistency are key, and if body recomposition is your goal, diet is 90% of the battle. Everyone’s ideal mix of activity will be different, but I generally advocate 2-3 days a week of weightlifting, no more than 1-2 days of high intensity classes, and plenty of low, slow movement including yoga and walking.
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