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Exercise – much more than just a calorie burning tool

Exercise is commonly seen as a tool to burn off calories and stored body fat. While exercise has potential to greatly increase calorie burn off and fat burning, as seen in elite athletes [1], studies show that for most people who are struggling with fat loss, dieting – i.e. reducing caloric intake - results in a greater weight loss (or fat loss in some cases) than exercising.[2-5] Why?
 
The problem is not that exercise is ineffective, but that the prescribed exercise dose or adherence to the prescribed exercise dose, is poor.[4, 6] In most studies, the energy deficit produced by the prescribed exercise is far smaller than that usually produced by dietary restriction.[4] In contrast, in studies that carefully compared the effects of an equal energy deficit caused by either aerobic exercise versus caloric restriction, the effect on weight loss is similar.[7-10] In these studies, subjects achieved an identical daily energy deficit of 500-700 calories, created either by diet or by supervised daily exercise, for a 12-week period. Similar weight losses (approximately 6 kg in women and 8 kg in men) occurred in both the diet-only and exercise-only groups.[7, 8]
 
Unfortunately, adherence to exercise programs that daily burn 500-700 calories per session is low and over half end up dropping out after 16 months, despite getting paid for their time.[11, 12] But this does not mean that lower amounts of exercise are "worthless". Here I will tell you how regular exercising – even if your workouts don’t result in large calorie expenditures - helps you stay on the fitness track…
 

Appetite control

 
What about those people who struggle with adhering to exercise programs and have a hard time completing workouts that burn 500-700 calories? Are their efforts worthless? No! Even a lower amount of exercise that doesn’t result in weight loss provides health benefits.[13, 14] Another important benefit, which is relatively unknown, is that aerobic exercise improve the coupling between calorie intake and energy expenditure; in other words, habitual physical activity improves spontaneous appetite control by enhancing satiety signaling, which automatically adjusts food intake to match expenditure.[15-20] In contrast, physical inactivity disrupts appetite control, which could contributes to ingestion of more calories than what is expended, and over time fat gain, unless conscious effort is made to restrict caloric intake to match a low energy expenditure.[21-24]
 
Evidence that physical inactivity disrupts appetite control comes from a study which assessed the effect of an imposed sedentary routine on energy intake.[23] It was found that a sedentary routine does not induce a compensatory reduction in caloric intake and leads to a significantly positive energy balance (i.e. a state where caloric intake exceeds expenditure), most of which is stored as body fat.[23] 
 

Working out ripple effects…

 
In addition to improved spontaneous appetite control, regular exercise has numerous beneficial psychological effects that support long-term fat loss and health promotion.[25-31] It is well-documented that regular exercise Improves self-efficacy (belief in one's ability to accomplish a task), body image, and mood, which may result in stronger motivation and confidence, which would in turn improve eating self-control, leading to better dietary compliance (as well as long-term exercise adherence).[25, 26] Improvements in self-efficacy for exercise appears to carry over to improvements in controlled
eating because of a generalization of feelings of ability to manage an array of choices and behaviors that are conductive to fat loss and health promotion.[25] This in turn leads to feelings of accomplishment (i.e. self-efficacy) and improved mood, which leads to a psychological climate in which individuals have more cognitive and emotional resources, as well as motivation and energy, to persist in a long-term  commitment to a fat loss and fitness enhancing program.[25, 32]
 
Specifically, success in adopting an exercise plan may increase confidence, internal locus of control (i.e. the feeling that one is in control of one’s actions and has free will) and the overall motivational drive toward other behaviors involved in fat loss and maintenance, such as restricting highly processed calorie-dense/nutrient-poor foods, alcoholic beverages, and self-monitoring.[27] In other words, self-control resources seems to be shared and transferable between health/fitness-related behaviors.[27] This “motivational carry-over” or ripple effect induced by successful adoption of an exercise plan would make adherence to healthy eating and an overall healthy fitness promoting lifestyle easier. Several studies have demonstrated that behavioral interventions (such as adoption of an exercise training program) have spill over - ripple effects – beyond their intended primary target (in this case, an increased exercise participation).[33] 
 
A notable study showed that exercise motivation and exercise self-control is associated with several important markers of eating self-control, and that the psychological effects of sticking to an exercise plan “spilled-over” and contributed to improved eating behavior.[27] This is in accordance with other studies suggesting that physical activity is a gateway behavior for improved eating control, and the existence of an interactive and reinforcing interaction between habitual exercise and healthy eating.[30, 34-38] In addition, sticking to a training program builds not just physical strength but also cognitive resources, especially inhibitory control, which are necessary to block impulsive actions that have adverse health consequences, such as over-eating, alcohol, smoking and recreational drug use.[29] 
 
Although the relationship between exercise program participation and fat loss is strong [26, 32, 39], less than half of the weight (fat) loss among obese people seems to be attributable to exercise induced calorie burn off.[32, 40] This suggests that the association of exercise program participation with weight loss in obese and unconditioned individuals is associated more with changes in psychosocial variables than caloric expenditure.[32] Considering these ripple effects, it is not surprising that regular exercise is a “potent factor” for long-term fat loss [41], and the strongest predictor of successful fat loss maintenance [42], even though it may not be directly (or solely) due to its calorie burn off effect. Figure 1 illustrates the psychological pathways linking exercise and weight control (or fat loss).
 
Figure 1: Psychological pathways linking exercise and weight control.[32]

Being on a training program adds a “healthy structure” to daily life

 
An interesting study interviewed people in real life (as opposed to subjects in a controlled study) about their weight loss experiences.[43] Among those who exercised regularly, exercise reinforced dietary behaviors, and either prompted them to maintain dietary compliance, or was an underlying factor that made them eat for fat-loss purposes.[43] For everybody who undertook exercise as part of their “get in shape journeys”, exercise was felt to add structure and re-affirm daily fitness behaviors.[43]
 
A couple of quotes from this study – in people’s own words - makes the point clear: [43]
 
“If I exercise I eat better. If I don’t exercise I eat worse”
 
“For me I think if I’m exercising three or four times a week, that punctuates a reminder to stay on track and eat clean or eat healthy and make appropriate choices”
 
“My thinking is if I go out for a run, which I enjoy doing, and I eat badly, I’ve ruined that hour that I’ve spent going out for a run. You know, I’ve wasted that hour, whereas if I go out for a run and eat properly that hour of going out and running has been productive”
 
“Even times where you’re not feeling great because you’ve eaten too much or you’re not too happy with the way your weight is… if the gym’s going well at least that’s something that you’re able to do”
 
Most of the participants stated that structure was a key component of their weight loss, linking it to their perception of control: [43]
 
“Being in control is something I’m enjoying, and having structure is important”
 
Participants felt that creating structures by being organized and developing routines allowed them to manage their behaviors in the context of their environments, so that appropriate food was available when needed, that meal plans were pre-determined and adherent to their objectives. For some, this was clearly defined and tangible:
 
“I find that I work better with things written down and things to follow. So that’s probably why I find it easier to work within certain calories, because I know that’s how many calories I’m supposed to be having”
 
Others stated that they had a less tangible structure, but that they recognized that routine was important to their successes: 
 
“I have a loose plan in place definitely. It’s a plan that I’ve fallen into I suppose through routine. I definitely know when I’m out of that routine” 
 

Make it fun instead of a “must”

 
Exercise and physical activity can be an inherently rewarding activities that contributes to both health, vitality and wellbeing.[44-47] By filling a psychological need of competence and enjoyment, adherence to physical activity may affirm and promote other healthy behaviors.[44] The key is to find reasons to exercise that are internally rewarding (such as enjoyment and health promotion), as opposed to externally imposed (such as weight loss pressured by a desire to please culturally set ideals).[44, 47-50]
 
In other words, instead of asking “what is the best exercise for fat loss?” ask yourself “what exercise(s) do I enjoy most”. For example, many people are dreading long-duration cardio. Why not try HIIT (high intensity interval training)? A recent study found that HIIT elicits higher enjoyment than moderate intensity continuous (long duration) exercise, due to HIIT being time efficient and providing a constantly changing stimulus.[51] Try different activities and find those you like; then you can start to think about which may be most effective in physiological terms. Because even the most effective exercise program won't do you any good unless you stick to it long-term.
 

Summary

 
In today’s environment that encourages sedentary behavior and over-eating of processed nutrient poor foods that are packed with empty calories, adhering to an exercise training program and healthy eating requires self-control and determination. Getting in shape and staying in shape in the modern obesogenic environment demands us to rely more on our intellect than our instincts.[52]
 
Exercising is not just to burn calories. It increase satiety signaling and improves appetite regulation, and has psychological effects that makes it easier for you to pick up and stick to healthy eating. By adding daily structure and acting as a reminder, regular working out helps you stay on track with your overall fitness lifestyle. In this sense, physical activity is a “gateway behavior” for an upward spiral towards your fitness and health goal(s).
 
The use of manageable amounts of exercise to build mental strength, self-regulatory skills, competence, and mood improvements that promote a newfound sense of control over eating might prove to become a widespread solution to the longstanding epidemic of obesity and notorious struggle with losing excess body fat and keeping it off.[53]
 
Bottom line: pick up a training program - stick to it - and get a free ride on the ripple effects!
 

References:

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45.          Silva, M.N., et al., A randomized controlled trial to evaluate self-determination theory for exercise adherence and weight control: rationale and intervention description. BMC Public Health, 2008. 8: p. 234.

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51.          Thum, J.S., et al., High-Intensity Interval Training Elicits Higher Enjoyment than Moderate Intensity Continuous Exercise. PLoS One, 2017. 12(1): p. e0166299.

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Last modified on Friday, 07 April 2017 22:24
Monica Mollica

Medical Writer & Nutritionist

MSc in Nutrition

University of Stockholm & Karolinska Institute, Sweden 

   Baylor University, TX, USA

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