Is Exercise Pointless? (Why You Can't Out Train A Bad Diet)

By Aadam | July 30, 2016

You’ve most likely heard the fitness universalism, ‘you can’t out train a bad diet’ or it’s hyperbolic, sensationalist sibling the mainstream media seem to adore, ”exercise is pointless for weight loss”.
Well, they’re sort of, kinda right.
What?
I’m about to explain.

How Many Calories Do We Actually Expend?

Firstly, let’s quickly take a look at how many calories we, as people, actually expend day to day.

metabolism

The image is a representation of the human metabolism and its component parts.

– BMR: Basal Metabolic Rate.

BMR is our base metabolic rate. As you’re sat reading this, concurrently there are a host of chemical processes occurring inside of you like, your brain using calories to process this article, your eyes flicking from the phone screen to the pretty girl sat opposite, simultaneously making your heart beat faster as she stares back – all this stuff, believe it or not, burns calories and is your BMR or Basal Metabolic Rate.
BMR makes up the chunk of your metabolism and accounts for around 60-70% for most people.

– NEAT: Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.

NEAT is the term used to describe all the activity you do that isn’t intentional exercise. Things like fidgeting, walking, playing with your dog etc. If you take a sec to look at the image, you’ll see that NEAT accounts for more calories than actual exercise does. Which, at first, does make you think WTF but, think about it: you’re only training like, what? 3-4 maybe 5, possibly 6x a week, for an hour? An hour and a half?
Unless you’re a pro athlete you aren’t burning nearly as many calories during your training session as you may think you are, and the rest of the 23 hours will have a bigger impact on calorie expenditure (which is why, I should add, I’m always nagging you guys about being more active in general – but we’ll get to this in a bit)
NEAT accounts for around 30% of total energy expenditure, but can go higher for some people [think construction workers].

– EAT: Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.

EAT is everything you do that is intentional exercise. Depending on what sort of exercises you perform, the number of calories you burn can vary – strength training would burn fewer calories than say an hour or two of running, as one example.
For most of us, EAT accounts for around 10-15% of calorie expenditure.

– TEF: Thermic Effect of Food

This is the number of calories you burn digesting food. Even though TEF accounts for only 5-10%, it still factors into energy expenditure.
Take a second look at how little exercise accounts for in the total energy expenditure equation – 10%. Compared to everything else; it’s pretty insignificant.

Let’s put it another way.

There are 24 hours in a day [well, actually it’s 23 hours and 56 minutes, but I digress], most people who, uh, you know, have a life will only be training for around an hour a day.
That’s ~5% of your day.

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 09.08.59
Pushing this further over a one week period: There are 168 hours in one week. If someone trains for an hour, 3-5x per week, that’s 3-5 hours of intentional exercise versus 163-165 hours of no exercise.
 
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 18.29.53
 
That’s only ~1-3% of activity.
Yes, only 1-3%.
Suffice to say, what we do in those 163-165 hours is going to make more of a difference than what we do in the 3-5 hours we intentionally exercise. 

But, it doesn’t stop there.  

For an average weight person [155-160lbs] an hour of strength training burns approx 200-300 calories ––

WOAH! OK, let’s stop for a sec, because I want you to read the following. You see how this whole thing is enclosed in a pretty yellow box? Yeah, It’s to signify it’s importance, so read it: please note that these numbers are just an approximate, and I’m simply using them for illustrative purposes. Don’t worry about how many calories you’re burning through strength training, there’s just way too much variance, external factors, and just a pain in the ass to worry about.

And resuming ––
Let’s assume a hypothetical person strength trains 3x per week and burns 600-900 calories.
To lose a pound of fat per week, he would need to burn 3500 calories. Our hypothetical friend is still off that by around 2500-2900 calories.
He’d have to bump up his training session to around 10-15 sessions a week, but that isn’t all. He’d also have to bump up training intensity to elicit enough of a metabolic response to burn sufficient calories.
Then there’s all the other factors – recovery, increased injury risk, having a life, and all the other grown-up responsibilities us non-instagram models have.
I’m sure we can all agree that this is simply not feasible.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

  • Exercise can stimulate hunger

This varies from person to person. Some find high-intensity training like sprints and weight lifting suppresses appetite, others find that exercise stimulates hunger. From personal experience, I find high-intensity training suppresses my appetite, while steady-state cardio like running increases my appetite.
Regardless, the point is that if you’re exercising and not paying attention to diet, you’re most likely going to eat more than normal due to increased hunger.

  • People tend to eat more because they’ve exercised.

People are notoriously bad at underestimating how many calories they eat and are just as notoriously bad at overestimating how hard they trained.
Due to this, people tend to ‘reward’ themselves after a hard exercise session – well, I totally killed legs today, I deserve this whole box of Krispy Kremes.

Fun Fact: 210 calories in one Krispy Kreme [Original Glazed] x 12 in a box = 2,520 calories. Calories burned in one strength session at most 500 calories. I think you get my point. 

  • Exercise can make you lazy.

Ah, yes. The great paradox of exercise. While exercise will most definitely increase energy over the long term. In the short period after exercising, you will feel a bit more tired: consequently, you’re more likely to move around less through the day, take the elevator instead of the stairs, sit more than stand, take the taxi instead of walk etc, etc. All of this means you’re burning fewer calories by the end of the day.

What can you do then?

Ok, first I apologise. I used a pretty clickbaity title, but hey, it worked: you clicked through as it tickled your curiosity, and here you are 1/2 way through still reading.
While exercise may not be a good tool to burn calories on its own, there are a plethora of benefits to exercise [both strength and cardiovascular] that makes it essential for everyone, some including:

  • More muscle
  • A stronger and resilient body
  • Decreased chance of disease and health degeneration
  • Better sex life
  • A good looking body
  • Healthy heart
  • Stronger bones
  • Did I say a good looking body?

Regardless, the point still stands: you can’t out train a bad diet. If your goal is fat loss – make nutrition the priority and have strength training support it.

So, firstly: be aware of your calorie intake. 

Cutting 500 calories from your diet is far easier than trying to exercise to burn 500 calories.
Your training should facilitate muscle growth and retention, let your calorie deficit handle the fat burning. 

Second, and this is what many people don’t realise, harness the power of NEAT.

Let’s go back to the metabolism illustration.

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 10.59.45
As I previously mentioned – NEAT, circled in red, accounts for more energy expenditure than the physical activity you do, EAT, circled in blue. 
This makes sense. You’re only training 3-5 hours a week. This leaves you with 163-165 hours in the week and everything else – like walking, standing, gardening, cleaning, and all the other ostensibly frivolous things you think don’t count – all add up.
Don’t believe me? Let me show you this.
NEAT-GRAPH
This graph was taken from this study looking at the role of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis in people [NEAT]. The graph shows the difference in calories expended via different jobs.
Note how much of a difference there is in calorie expenditure between being seated all day (seated work – no option of moving) and standing work. Once again: All those little things we dismiss or don’t notice, add up – everything counts.
By simply being more active throughout the day – walking, interspersing periods of sitting and standing, light stretching etc. – you can artificially ”speed up your metabolism”.

metabolism-2

*Hold image down and select ‘open image in new tab’ for a bigger version.


Look at the two metabolism graphs above. If we took two identical people – like, actually cloned one person because even twins have some genetic variance –  and one was sedentary, the other active.
Their ‘natural’, or baseline metabolisms are the same, but the active individual – due to being more active – has a ‘faster’ metabolism [as illustrated by the red sections].
This means the active clone can eat more food, and not gain fat.

In Closing

Once again, exercise matters. And is very important. However, if your goals are fat loss oriented, then first focus on dialling in your nutrition and then support that with your training.