Breaking the Rules: Weight Loss Rule #2 (Eat Less, Move More)

Everyone knows that to lose weight, you have to consume less calories, and exercise more. I don’t want to cast a negative light on blogs pushing the advice “eat less, move more,” but if you type that old adage into Google you can feast your eyes on an abundance of resources.

Eating a little less and moving a little more works really well when you’re 100 pounds overweight. In fact, you might find that when you’re very overweight or if you’re attempting weight loss or exercise for the first time in your life, you can cut a lot of calories and work out hard and lose weight quickly. This is of course because your body is a) probably bloated water from eating above your maintenance calories for so long, meaning you drop a lot of “water weight” quickly, and; b) Your basal metabolic rate is high, meaning that you can still eat 2000+ calories and experience a significant weight loss each week.

So you’re trucking along, losing weight consistently, and then all of a sudden, it gets a little more difficult. Then a little more. And then it starts to crawl. This obviously leads you to question what it is you’re doing wrong, so you decide to cut back on your calories and increase your exercise some more; rinse and repeat with each stall.

It’s important to decrease your caloric intake as you lose weight, in my view, because as your body gets smaller and smaller, it requires less calories to function. This is a good thing! The problem lies in the fact that your calories can only go so low before either your metabolism adapts (and you are forced to live on 1000 calories a day for weight maintenance) or you slip into non-compliance (because who wants to eat 1000 calories a day for the rest of their life).

So how does exercise play into this? Well, if your body needs 1700 calories a day to function, and you are eating 1000 calories a day, you have a deficit of 700 calories for that day. If you do an hour of vigorous exercise and burn 500 calories, you’ve hit a 1200 calorie deficit, leaving your body with 500 calories with which to function. I’m sure you see where this is going, but if not, consider this: eventually your body will learn how to live on 500 calories a day, and your life will suck. Put simply.

But wait! There’s a twist. Research has indicated that moderate and vigorous exercise increase appetite, which leaves many dieters in a pickle. You work out until your hands are so sweaty that your water bottle flies out of your hand when you try and drink (never been there), and you feel awesome – and, you probably don’t feel hungry at all. Score! Then 11am rolls around and you’re starving. Then you’re hungry again at noon. Fast forward to 8pm and you’ve eaten way more than you wanted to because you were legitimately hungry all damn day.

Here’s the thing: vigorous exercise (and too much exercise in general) and too much calorie restriction are both put stress on our bodies. Speaking from experience, if you marry the two (too much exercise + too little food) you’ll end up not just hungry, but also injured, tired, bloated, and downright angry at the world. Oh and also, your weight loss will stop because your body will either learn to live on nothing, or decide that it’s going to cling to every ounce of fat on your body out of self-preservation.

Basically, our bodies are smarter than us. We’re here today because our ancestors outlived, outran, and outlasted (thanks, Survivor) animals,  crappy weather conditions, and famines. If you want consistent weight loss, you have to be strategic and smart about how you go about cutting calories and moving your body. Here’s a craft I think everyone should do:

  • draw a graph
  • mark x axis with weights and y axis with years or ages
  • put dots for the weight you were at when you were different ages
  • write next to each dot the circumstances that you can remember contributing to you being that weight (for me it’s things like “big break up” or “went to university”
  • connect your dots with lines and notice how your weight correlates with events in your life.

When I did this activity, I noticed that during times when I’ve exercised less and eaten moderately (nothing crazy as far as restriction, but eating mindfully), I’ve lost weight quite quickly (in case you’re wondering, these events are the break up of my 6 year relationship, my trip to Las Vegas, and my trip to Chicago). Maybe I’ll make my graph and insert it into this post…but maybe not because for some reason I can’t insert photos from my work computer.

If you notice that you were able to lose weight during times that you were doing very little physical activity, then it’s possible that that’s your meal ticket as far as weight loss goes. When I began working with a trainer in January, she told me that the best thing I could do for myself was to scale back on my exercise (specifically long, intense cardio sessions) and focus on just lowering my calories. Ultimately it was a matter of choosing one stress (dieting) over another (working out vigorously) to preserve my metabolism.

Prior to January 2012, my workout plan looked like this:

Monday: 60 minutes of weight lifting, 40 minutes of cardio| Tuesday: 60 minutes of cardio| Wednesday: 60 minutes of cardio| Thursday: 60 minutes of cardio| Friday: 45 minutes of weight lifting, 60 minutes of cardio| Saturday: 60 minutes of cardio| Sunday: 60 minutes of cardio

I should note that all of my cardio was intense in nature (my heart rate was above 160 for most of the time during each cardio workout). Lately, my workout schedule has been:

Monday: medium run (5-10 miles)| Tuesday: Lower body strength training + 15 minutes of moderate cardio| Wednesday: Upper body strength training + 15 minutes of moderate cardio| Thursday: short run| Friday: REST or some kettlebell swings and/or a walk (depending on the next day’s run)| Saturday: long run| Sunday: either 45 minutes of moderate cardio or rest

Obviously I’m still quite active, but dropping some of my cardio workouts, as well as the intensity of my non-run cardio sessions, has allowed me to reduce my caloric intake from 1550/day (+ a high day on Saturday of 2000+ calories) to 1250/day (+ a high day on Saturday of 2000+ calories and a medium day on Friday of about 1500 calories). This plan works well for me because I’m able to eat enough carbs on Friday to fuel for Saturday’s long run and to eat enough on Saturday post-run to replenish my glycogen stores, while still losing 1 – 1.5lbs/week.

I realize this post doesn’t offer you a prescription for how to lose weight using exercise and diet in equilibrium, but that isn’t really the point. I encourage you to question the popular advice given to those wanting to lose weight, and most of all, to figure out what works for YOUR body specifically. If you have been slaving away on cardio machines for years and eating almost nothing only to either not lose weight, or binge and undo your hard work, then you need to QUESTION your method and try something else.

Good luck!

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2 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules: Weight Loss Rule #2 (Eat Less, Move More)

  1. I’ve been reading a lot about this recently – and my next question may have an obvious answer in your above post – but recently I’ve cut out some of my more intense exercise and focusing on yoga – so my question: Do you eat back your exercise calories? If you are running 5 miles on Monday, do you eat 1250 calories or 1250 calories + the 500-ish cals you would burn on your run? I know that different things work for different people, but just thought I would ask. Thanks for another great post!

    • You know, when I was following WW and had much more weight to lose, I did eat back most of my exercise calories. I don’t typically do that anymore Sunday – Thursday. On Fridays I tend to eat 1500 – 1800 calories and do a little less exercise, and on Saturdays, I burn between 800 and 1600 calories and eat usually around 2200 – 2500 (depending on the length of my run). So between Friday and Saturday I figure I do eat back my exercise calories for my long run specifically, and this enables me to live on less net calories (1250 minus 400 give or take) during the week.

      Something I didn’t mention is that I’m also using diet breaks this time. Meaning every 12 weeks ish I’ll take between a few days to a couple week off either exercise, dieting, or both. My last one was in Florida. This is based on some advice and research suggesting that even with very low caloric intake, metabolic adaptation can be mitigated by periods of “rest”. So far so good, but I’m tracking all this and will see what happens as marathon training gets more intense.

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