Exercise and Fat Loss - Five Inconvenient Truths All Personal Trainers Should Know
The “fitness industry” and the “fat loss industry” are terms often used interchangeably. In fact, I would go as far as saying that to many potential clients and the general public, the title “personal trainer” is synonymous with fat loss. Why else would you have a trainer, right?
With an increasingly overweight and sedentary population it is of no surprise that the overwhelming majority of a PT’s clients are looking for fat/weight loss. The market, reacting to the demands, has seen many trainers pigeon holed into the role of a “fat loss coach”. Central to this idea is that exercise is an effective way to lose weight. You only have to check out magazines, tv programmes like the biggest loser and ever influential social media platforms where trainers are falling over themselves to show you their “body blaster routine”, “the fat loss workout you can do at home” or how you can “melt the fat away with this high intensity circuit”. In a recent study of overweight and obese individuals 71% of respondents to a survey agreed that exercise is a very effective way to lose weight (Thomas, 2015).
Unfortunately, this firmly held, and often pervasive belief, is wrong.
1. Exercise, as a stand-alone intervention, only typically produces small amounts of weight loss
As someone looking to move into the personal training industry it can feel pretty uncomfortable to read that previous sentence (it certainly made me feel uneasy when I finally discovered the science), but even relatively large amounts of exercise (without dietary intervention) typically produce only small amounts of weight loss. Now we have to account for large differences in exercise modality, volume (how much), duration and frequency when looking at studies (known as heterogeneity) but weight loss from exercise typically produces less than a 3% initial body weight reduction (Jakicic, 2009). So that 100Kg client, coming to the gym three times per week can expect to see less than 3Kg loss in their body weight if they start exercising to current public health recommendations (150 min week). More recently Swift (2014) noted that obese and overweight individuals could expect to lose a whopping 0-2Kg from aerobic training and even less from resistance training! Not much to get excited about after you have dragged yourself through the blood, sweat and tears of your new life in the gym of chaffing, aching, pressing, pulling, squeezing and running.
In order to see meaningful fat loss (above 5% of initial bodyweight) requires large volumes of exercise, upwards of 500-700 calories of exercise EVERY SINGLE DAY (Ross, 2000). Yet even such high volumes can still result in disappointing weight loss of less than 3kg (Flack, 2018).
Why does exercise often produce disappointing fat loss results? Whilst it’s beyond the scope of this article to go into detail, a number of factors contribute including a low caloric expenditure, dietary and physical compensations and a lack of long-term adherence to the training plan.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Whilst exercise comes a distant second to dieting for fat loss, together they can pack a great 1-2 combo with exercise often having an additive effect on dietary induced caloric deficits and weight loss (John, 2014). Additionally, increasing research is highlighting the vital role of exercise when it comes to weight loss maintenance (keeping it off) with higher rates of physical activity often leading to lower rates of weight regain once individuals cease dieting (Foright, 2018).
There are hundreds of reasons to promote exercise, fat loss being one, however it’s just much lower down the pecking order than many individuals realise. It’s not that exercise is useless for fat loss, it can certainly help, it’s just not its main strengths. Instead us trainers (and soon to be trainers) may be better placed focusing on all of the other amazing benefits to exercise such as building muscle or strength, fighting chronic diseases, improving function, increased energy or health.
2. Those That Are Most Expectant Of Fat Loss From Exercise Are Often The First Clients to Leave
Think back to a job you hated. For me it was getting up at 5:30am each Saturday morning to be elbow deep in blood and meat working for a local butcher. I didn’t like the work, the hours were long and the place stank. But I showed up every week for years. Why? Because at the end of the day I got £20 from the butcher (a lot of money to a 13-year-old). So, I put up with it. I endured the day for the reward of the money. Now replace the butchers for the gym and the £20 for fat loss. You have just described most people’s introduction to “fitness”. They endure whatever death circuit their trainer puts them through because at the end they expect to be rewarded with lower scale weight, loose jeans and fat loss.
What if I stopped getting paid? Let’s say I finished a Saturday morning shift and the butcher decided he was no longer going to pay me for my work! There’s every chance I wouldn’t be showing up anymore! Why put myself through all of that if I don’t get rewarded with the very thing I was doing it for.
The same holds true with the relationship many trainers foster between their new clients and exercise. They tolerate the aches, the soreness, the burning, the sweat all for the pay-off of weight loss. Yet, as we have seen from point one, the pay-off often fails to come, or at least to the extent they expected. Now the client has very little reason to continue exercising. If they are not getting the very thing they were sold on (weight loss) then why the hell keep putting yourself through this crap and why should I keep paying this person money!? Oh dear, we over-promised and under-delivered on exercise’s ability to help clients lose weight.
We made exercise, this powerful, amazing tool that holds the key to many individuals living a long and healthy life and made it nothing more than a blunt, monochrome implement to expend calories to promote weight loss.
The result? You end up feeling like a poor trainer as you can’t “get results” and your client’s want to quit. To quote Thomas (2014);
“Persons with higher perceived weight status and belief that exercise was an effective way to lose weight were more likely to become discouraged when exercise did not produce substantial weight loss results”.
When we couple this with the fact many overweight and obese clients often expect to lose an unrealistic amount of weight (Foster, 1997) it’s clear that when we over-sell the benefits of fat loss from exercise we are not only setting our clients up for a fall, but setting up our business to fail as we quickly turnover clients.
3. Labelling Exercise As “Fat Burning” May Subconsciously Drive People to Eat More
The human body is wonderfully complex yet many want to reduce it down to overly simplistic platitudes, “move more, eat less”. Whilst calorie balance absolutely matters and is imperative to weight loss, trainers often want to focus on the physical (do some exercise and burn some calories) whilst neglecting the psychological. Let me illustrate my point with a study by Fenzel (2014).
In this study they put 96 people through a fairly gentle 20-minute cycle, about 100 calories worth of exercise. After the cycle as participants were filling out a questionnaire they were told to “help themselves” to food (pretzel pieces). However, unknowing to the participants, they had been separated into two groups. Group one was told the cycle was “fat-burning exercise” whilst group two were told it was “endurance exercise”. The same activity, for the same duration, just framed differently to the two groups. The outcome? Individuals who perceived physical activity as stressful and unenjoyable (aka most new clients) were more likely to overcompensate in the fat-burning label condition aka they ate more. This goes back to our endure-reward idea. Individuals that dislike exercise, who had to endure what was a rather small amount of it, consumed more calories after exercise when it was labelled as “fat-burning” compared to “endurance training”. “I put myself through that fat burning workout, now I deserve a little reward”. Much of this happens subconsciously. This theme has been further extended through the work of West (2017) who showed when exercisers were told they have burned more calories during exercise sessions they subsequently eat more after that exercise session. The important word here is they are TOLD they have burned more calories (when in fact they had burned the same number in each exercise session). This phenomenon known as a “license to eat” further compounds why we should look to avoid promoting exercise to our clients as just a means for calorie expenditure (burning) and adds to one of the many reasons your clients may lose less weight via exercise than we may predict.
4. HIIT Training Might Be Worth a Miss
Have you heard of these wonderful HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts where you blast yourself (or clients) for short periods and it creates an “afterburn” (technical term is Excess Post Oxygen Consumption, or EPOC)? The idea being that we work our clients very hard for short periods of time and due to the intensity of the workout it revs up their metabolism so they can burn-extra calories for 24-48 hours after the session. Sounds amazing right? Well the fitness industry certainly thought so, spawning the introduction of endless HIIT workouts using all manner of bodyweight, kettlebells, battle ropes and burpees.
The idea sounds great in principle, small investments for large pay-offs. 15 minutes work and then sit on the sofa watching Netflix as a fat burning furnace. Unfortunately, as is often the case in the fitness industry, the power of HIIT as much hyperbole as Nigel Farage’s £300,000,000 NHS bus (Jesus Gregg stay AWAY from any form of politics in your blog you muppet).
Firstly, the “afterburn”, the purported calories you burn after a training session, are typically lower than we expected, much lower. Whilst some of the most spurious claims have you believing fat loss is only 15 minutes of work away, the science tells us EPOC is roughly 6-15% of the total calories burned (expended) depending on the session intensity and duration (LaForgia, 2006). So, if you worked really, really hard and burned 700 calories in a 60 minute exercise session, you would be looking at 42-105 of those calories coming from EPOC. That’s right, a small apple.
EPOC’s underwhelming performance has also been highlighted in two recent meta-analysis (think of taking a bunch of studies on a topic and putting them together to get a stronger idea of what the research as a whole is saying. Like zooming out on google maps to get the bigger picture).
Notably Keating (2017) compared the effects of HIIT to moderate intensity continuous training (MICT), like a steady 30 minute run, for improvements in fat loss in overweight adults. Both types of exercise produced similar yet small reductions in body fat (1-1.4Kg over periods of more than a month). To quote the paper “neither short-term HIIT nor MICT produced clinically meaningful reductions in body fat”. Again, disappointing fat loss results. The second meta-analysis by Wewege (2017) came to a very similar conclusion (this time studies lasted 10 weeks on average with three sessions per week ) with both HIIT and MICT producing similar, if unspectacular results (less than 1Kg weight loss on average). They did note that the HIIT sessions were around 40% quicker than the MICT, a bonus for busy individuals short on time and where HIIT certainly has a place.
Whilst HIIT’s ability to produce fat loss is at best small, it’s not even my biggest bug bear with the application of HIIT training for new clients. Now, I won’t dwell on this too much today as I will be covering it in much more detail in next month’s blog post, but in the world of personal training client experience is paramount. It’s the “Don”, “Queen” and “Gaffa”. To quote renowned strength coach Dan John “the goal of the first session is to get a second session”. When we introduce new clients, clients who have had bad previous experiences with exercise, who are deconditioned, nervous about the gym environment and anxious of the ensuing discomfort of exercise, HIIT can be an absolute motivation drain. Ignoring the fact they don’t yet have the aerobic fitness to tolerate repeated high effort intervals (one or two good efforts then overwhelming nausea, we have to build the base to build a high peak) HIIT for many, is a very unpleasant experience. Let’s be clear, whilst every fitness advert you see on social media is of half-naked 20 somethings performing “insane” workouts, this is not who we trainers will be helping on a daily basis. Anything that diminishes the chances of the client showing up again is a huge no-no and crippling DOMS and nausea are usually on that list!
For balance, and contrary to what you might be thinking have read the last paragraph, HIIT is a tool I use and use regularly. Like all tools in order to be effective it needs to be used at the right time, for the right job. HIIT is time efficient, can improve fitness quickly, supress appetite (in some not all individuals) and shows increasing promise in improving health in a number of populations. HIIT, like everything in the industry, should be seen through the context it is being applied and not seen as an over-hyped panacea of fat loss.
5. Exercise Is Just A Small Piece of A Large Calorie Burning Pie
Royal Society For Public Health
I’m sure you will have seen dozens of these examples. “Run 22 minutes to burn off a chocolate bar”, “one cinnamon bun will take you over and hour to walk off”, “a large pizza requires 3 hours of dragging yourself over broken glass to burn off the shame”. Ok, I may have embellished a little with the last one, but you get the picture. These infographics represent the commonly perpetuated idea that the primary way we burn calories is through exercise. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Unless you are performing Mo Farah amounts of exercise there is a good chance that exercise only makes up a very small portion of the total number of calories you burn throughout the day or week (known as total daily energy expenditure or TDEE for short). You are burning calories every minute of every day, that’s right, as you sit and read this article you are a calorie burning machine and when you consider that most people will exercise for 3 out of 168 hours in a week, or less than 2% of their time, it quickly becomes obvious that exercise is not the primary driver for energy expenditure. So, what is you ask? Here is a quick and simple run down of what makes up someone’s TDEE.
Proportions will vary between individuals.
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – colloquially known as your “metabolism”. This is the energy you burn just to stay alive. Pumping the heart, breathing, detoxification of the blood, it all costs calories and typically accounts for 60(ish)% of someone’s TDEE. Often demonised “I think I have a slow metabolism”, slow or low metabolisms are pretty rare in otherwise healthy adults.
None Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) – The calories you burn from moving that is not planned exercise. Posture, talking, walking to the shops, what you do at work, fidgeting - it’s all NEAT. This is one of the most variable components of energy expenditure (just think of the difference between the calories an office worker burns compared to that of someone who is involved in manual labour). NEAT is often the reason some people just don’t gain weight and in one study people that were overfeed by 1000 calories per day increased their NEAT by 700 calories (jammy sods) negating almost all weight gain (Levine, 1999).
Exercise – I think you have got this one.
Thermic Effect of Feeding – The calories it takes you to digest your food, typically 10% of your TDEE.
So, as you can see when it comes to calorie burning exercise is somewhat of a small piece of a much larger pie. And do you want to know a little secret that most personal trainers won’t be aware of? Increasing your energy expenditure via exercise can negatively impact how many calories you burn from NEAT. That’s right, the body has an ability to try to conserve calories when we put it into a caloric deficit hence why weight loss often slows as we get deeper into a diet. It’s quite an important evolutionary trait if we all didn’t want to starve to death after being put in a 500 calorie deficit.
Ever dieted on really low calories and felt sluggish, lethargic, like you didn’t want to move? That’s your body compensating, reducing the calories you burn from NEAT (all the stuff that’s not planned exercise) in order to slow you rate of weight loss. Similar compensations can be seen with the introduction of exercise.
The graph below depicts the TDEE of women who started a walking fitness programme, walking 40-50 minutes 4 times per week. Notice that the group in the black bars actually lowered their TDEE at the end of the 13 weeks despite adding in exercise. You read that right, they added in 2-3 hours of walking per week but managed to go from 2349 calories per day at the start (doing no exercise) to only 2254 and 2080 calories on training and rest days! They burned less calories on days they exercised (walked) than when they had previously been doing nothing 13 weeks earlier. Energy burned through exercise had increased but NEAT reduced to such an extent that TDEE was now lower than at baseline. Talk about compensating!
To throw a spanner into the works, the extent to which this happens is highly variable from person to person. This knowledge as a trainer can be invaluable as it can stop the “blame game” of telling clients they are not following the plan if you’re not seeing results, gives you actionable advice you can implement with your client (step counts) and stops you beating yourself up if clients may be struggling to lose weight (which doesn’t instantly make you a “bad PT”).
So What does This Mean? Should we Stop Focusing on Fat Loss Clients?
As someone looking into a career in fitness, what does this mean?
1. Focus Fat Loss Client’s Attention to The Big Rocks
Fat loss is the dominant market and I’m not for one second telling you to ignore fat loss clients. However, armed with this knowledge about fat loss and exercise you can focus your fat loss client’s efforts on the rocks that really matter for their goals, nutrition. We can then use our expertise as trainers to create a training environment in which our clients fall in love with the process of training and all of the other wonderful benefits that come with it.
2. Advocate The Other Amazing Benefits of Exercise Beyond Fat Loss
We can separate ourselves from the crowd by championing none fat loss benefits of exercise. Living a healthier and fuller life, less aches and pains, increased strength and energy, building and shaping the body, reducing chronic diseases, strengthening bones, improving sports performance, improving mental health and reducing stress are all huge pay offs to regular exercise. Ironically, when we can get people to buy into the process of regular exercise on a long-term basis we often see these individuals making great improvements in their body composition as an “advantage of implementation”. Fat loss wasn’t necessarily their primary goal but focusing on the process or regular progressive training often leads to a cascade of secondary benefits. From a business perspective these types of clients can also pay dividend as they have brought in long-term and are not as likely to quit training the week they don’t see the scale budge.
3. Long-Term Fat Loss is Complicated
Whilst I could (and may still) write an entire article on this topic, the “industry” and many clients will judge you on your ability to help them lose weight. Whilst it is a multifactorial approach, weight loss is heavily weighted towards nutritional solutions (not training issues) and is in a fact a poor barometer of a trainer’s competency. It’s common for clients to approach trainers wanting to lose weight, performing excellently within the sessions but finding themselves unable to follow through with the nutrition advice, regardless of the trainers help, knowledge or support. They (client) are not yet ready to change and are often conflicted between their want to lose weight and their desire to maintain their current lifestyle. As the saying goes you can only lead a horse to water. It’s not the trainer’s role to motivate the client, but to create the right environment in which the client can motivate themselves with most “transformations” more to do with a client’s burning desire than a trainer’s ability to google write a “diet plan”.
Wrapping This Up
I hope this was an informative, if long read. As budding personal trainers in a diverse and expansive industry we have to arm ourselves with the best information in order to do the best by our clients and our business. Falling back on “industry knowledge”, as I unknowingly did many times in my earlier career, can cause new trainers many problems within their business and it’s imperative you arm yourself with the facts if you are to have a long and fulfilling career in fitness.
If you are thinking of becoming a trainer or are just someone looking to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle but still find yourself confused by conflicting information, then please feel free to drop me a line with any questions or feedback.
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Thomas (2014) - The gap between expectations and reality of exercise-induced weight loss is associated with discouragement
Swift (2014) - The role of exercise and physical activity in weight loss and maintenance
Ross (2000) – Reduction in obesity and related comorbid conditions after diet-induced weight loss or exercise-induced weight loss in men
Flack (2018) - Energy Compensation in Response to Aerobic Exercise Training in Overweight Adults
Foright (2018) -Is regular exercise an effective strategy for weight loss maintenance?
Foster (1997) - What is a reasonable weight loss? Patients' expectations and evaluations of obesity treatment outcomes.
Fenzel (2014) - Labelling exercise fat-burning increases post-exercise food consumption in self-imposed exercisers
West (2017) “I deserve a treat”: Exercise motivation as a predictor of post-exercise dietary licensing beliefs and implicit associations toward unhealthy snacks
LaForgia (2006) - Effects of exercise intensity and duration on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.
Keating (2017) - A systematic review and meta-analysis of interval training versus moderate-intensity continuous training on body adiposity
Wewedge (2017) - The effects of high-intensity interval training vs. moderate-intensity continuous training on body composition in overweight and obese adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis
Levine (1999) - Role of non exercise activity thermogenesis in resistance to fat gain in humans
Di Blasio (2012) - Walking training in postmenopause: Effects on both spontaneous physical activity and training-induced body adaptations
The fitness industry is full of myths, misconceptions and bad information. When starting out in your career it’s hard to know what is right, what is wrong and how to tell the difference.
Our goal is to offer outstanding, accredited Level 2, Level 3 and Applied Personal Training courses and advise and support future personal trainers to help thousands of clients achieve their fitness goals.