I’m no stranger to struggles with weight loss. I first started dieting and exercising to change my weight when I was 16 years old, although if I had my way I likely would’ve started earlier- even though I was a slim girl, I never saw myself that way. Just because I was one or two pant sizes bigger than the other girls in my class, I thought I was huge.
I also didn’t have good role models growing up- the women in my family were constantly hating on their bodies and always dieting. I thought that if I didn’t have a flat tummy, toned arms and a “thigh gap”, I was unworthy of being called “beautiful”.
Throughout the next several years, I dieted on an off basically all the time, usually by restricting my fat intake, lowering my calories and doing loads of cardio and attending bootcamp exercises classes at the local rec centre.
It always worked temporarily, until I was in my early 20s and was diagnosed with PCOS. Calorie counting didn’t work, and when I went back to the treadmill, I gained even MORE weight. I couldn’t understand what the fuck was going on, and I felt like a failure.
Although doctors and various “experts” over the last several decades have heavily promoted long cardio sessions and hardcore bootcamp classes as being the best for weight loss, this is a total MYTH, and a myth I’m super excited to BUST for you today.
The Bad Science
First of all, let’s talk science.
The thought process behind using cardio for weight loss centres around calorie expenditure. For instance, 1 pound of fat equals 3,500 calories. So, if you want to lose 1 pound per week, you need to burn an extra 500 calories per day according to this theory.
Doctors and others may suggest that doing an hour on the treadmill, elliptical or stationary bike daily with some calorie restriction on your food will get you there. But what happens at the end of the week when you’ve burned all these calories and the scale still doesn’t budge?
Part of this has to do with heart rate. When you do cardio, it’s at a steady pace for the entire time. Generally, this is inefficient at burning fat, as variations in heart rate (like in High-Intensity Interval Training) become more effective partly by “keeping your body guessing” and putting yourself into that fat burning zone.
Also, doing long, drawn out cardio often leaves us tired and hungry. So we eat more. Or, if we have the willpower to stick with the 1,200 calories a day we’ve chosen for our weight loss diet, we aren’t giving our bodies the proper fuel to recover from this exercise, which creates a mess in your body. We’ll talk about this more in the next section.
Your Body On Cardio and Bootcamps
To help you understand WHY these forms of exercise are inefficient for weight loss, you must understand HOW your body reacts when you participate in these activities.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use jogging as an example.
You go out for a run, hoping to shed those pounds. You slowly work your way up to longer and longer distances.
As you are running, a stress reaction starts in your body. Cortisol, your main stress hormone, is released. While this is a good thing if you’re literally running for your life, chronically high levels of cortisol (i.e.: from long distance running), tells your body to make and release more sugar into the blood so your body can make more energy.
Higher levels of blood sugar is one of the simplest ways your body packs on the pounds. Plus, this leaves you feeling ravenous. The sugar and carb cravings will be yelling at you and guess what- you’ll likely eat and average of 100 more calories after you’re done than you burned off during the exercise!
Additionally, doing this type of exercise (or other cardio and bootcamps), causes your body to burn muscle instead of fat. Less lean muscle mass slows your metabolism, and it becomes even harder to burn those calories to get the weight off. Plus, you’ll become weaker, more tired and more irritable. And your hormones will start screaming at you.
High levels of cortisol and imbalanced blood sugar mean hormonal hell. Your body steals building blocks (like pregnenolone and progesterone) to make more cortisol, leaving you deficient in progesterone. Low progesterone isn’t able to keep estrogen in check, so estrogen dominance can result.
Estrogen dominance then starts a STORM in your body of weight gain- especially in the hips, thighs, belly and back- and moodiness, anxiety, depression and of course- bad periods.
Many women with hormonal imbalances with estrogen dominance at the root (like PCOS, Endometriosis, PMS, and heavy, painful or irregular periods) feel the worst when they do cardio and bootcamps because it increases their symptoms- even if during the exercise they feel fabulous.
You can read more about Estrogen Dominance to see if this hormonal imbalance is part of your inability to lose weight and improve your emotional state by clicking here.
What Can Be Done Instead
So that’s all great- but what can you actually do to effectively burn fat without losing muscle and creating hormonal imbalances?
First, correct your hormonal imbalances with food.
You cannot out-exercise a bad diet ladies.
It’s just not possible. No matter how long you stay on that treadmill or how many bootcamp classes you attend, if you’re scarfing down a bagel for breakfast and eating take out for dinner every night, the scale is going to climb.
Second, switch your exercise to the fat-burning kind. The de-stressor kind. Think High-Intensity Interval Training for 20-30 minutes max, and some yoga to balance it out.