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As much as we love to track our steps with our Fitbits, a new study reinforces the evidence that more exercise is not the key to weight loss. The good news is, there is a way to fake out your body to help it burn more calories.
Most people think longer workouts will make them thinner, said study coauthor Herman Pontzer, a professor of anthropology at Hunter College.
But your body adjusts to exercise quickly and spending more time in an aerobic workout doesn't increase the calorie burn, the Hunter College study shows. So simply adding another mile to our run or squeezing in another spin class won't help us lose more weight.
“Shows like ‘The Biggest Loser,’ and devices like ‘Fitbit’ all predict that there is a linear relationship between exercise and weight loss, meaning the more active you are, the more energy you expend,” Pontzer says. ”That’s not what we found.”
As it turns out, our bodies are loathe to burn a lot of calories, Pontzer says. So, as we increase the amount of time spent in aerobic exercise, our bodies find ways to be less active during the rest of the day.
We sit more. We lie down more. We nap more.
An "increase in formal exercise leads to a decrease in activity otherwise," says Kathryn Schmitz, vice president of the American College of Sports Medicine and a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Exercise for your heart
That doesn’t mean that moderate exercise has no benefits. “It’s good if you want to lower your blood pressure, alter your HDL scores, or decrease your heart rate,” said Jeff Bernard, an exercise physiologist at Northwestern Medicine. “All of those are improved with moderate intensity workouts.”
For the new study, Pontzer and his colleagues measured daily energy expenditure and activity levels in more than 300 men and women over the course of a week.
The researchers found that people with moderate activity levels had somewhat higher daily energy expenditures—about 200 calories worth—compared to the most sedentary people. But people who had higher activity levels saw no increase in the amount of calories burned.
“We know from a lot of different studies that the single most effective tool we have to change our weight is diet,” Pontzer said.
But isn’t there any way to use workouts to lose weight?
Yes, experts say. But weight loss isn’t going to come from aerobic activity increases.
Build lean body mass
First, you have to understand that you’re more likely to lose weight if you include exercises that increase your lean body mass, Schmitz says.
“Americans have really low lean body mass compared to what they used to have,” Schmitz says. “They don’t lift things anymore. Weight training will help maintain lean body mass as we age. It will also help maintain mobility and function as we age.”
Related: Why 10,000 steps a day may not be enough
That doesn’t mean you should be using weights to bulk up, just to increase strength, Bernard says.
And the more muscle groups you activate during your weight training, the more likely you’re going to burn calories, he says. “When your body is increasing blood flow to a lot of different muscle groups, your metabolism can be elevated for as much as 36 hours,” Bernard says.
Another strategy to boost metabolism is interval training.
The secret Bernard says, is in alternating intense exercise with more moderate work, so your heart isn’t pounding at the same rate.
Ultimately you’re battling a system that evolved to protect us from expending too many calories, Bernard says.
Trainer Adam Bornstein developed a resistance training workout which doesn't require much equipment or any weights. Bornstein can answer more fitness questions at Born Fitness.
Increase lean body mass with this routine from trainer Adam Bornstein:
Body weight squat
Push-ups (or modified push-ups)
How to do it:
1. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes.
2. Do 8 reps of each exercise, resting as little as possible after each movement. Once you do all four moves, that's one round.
3. Rest for a minute and repeat.
4. Complete as many rounds as possible in the 10-15 minutes.
Can't wait try out this quick and easy exercise routine? Tell your friends on Pinterest about it.