New insights as to why you can’t avoid exercising

Posted on March 21, 2016

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The study:

Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans

Got some good publicity in January and February. For the wrong reasons. The Guardian titled their article on this paper as “Exercise alone won’t cause weight-loss, study shows.” The study does not show that.

What the study did

This was really cool. They looked at five groups. One from Ghana, United States, South Africa, Seychelles and Jamaica. They put accelerometers on people from each group to monitor physical activity.

However, they did not rely on accelerometry to tell them how many calories were burned. Accelerometers are indirect measures of calories burned, because they can’t pick up everything. They’re good at picking up steps, but not good at say, knowing if your leg is doing this:

Leg Twitching GIF

Or knowing if you’re standing rather than sitting.

To account for this, they used a method called doubly labeled water. Short version: By using radioactive particles in water you drink, then looking at some type of body sample (blood / urine / saliva), they can see how quickly these particles have been broken down. Long version: Wikipedia. (It’s pretty wild stuff!)

What the study found

If we start from being sedentary, initially, there is a nice relationship between getting more active and burning more calories. But, after a certain point, the strength of this relationship lessens. The key chart from the paper:

steps and calories burned relationship

-> Accelerometers were put into units of CPM/d, Counts Per Minute Per Day. This is not the same as steps. Trying to translate this into your own physical activity is a pain in the ass. For reference though, 11 counts per minute is like doing the dishes. ~7500 counts per minute is like a light jog.

We can see the line fit to the data above starts out with a decent curve, then starts plateauing. PlateauING is important. The authors mention a couple times their data pleateauED. In statistical terms, it does. But the line is still going up some. Their may be a lack of sample size once we get above a certain amount of activity. The demarcation here was about 230 counts per minute per day. Where after that, there isn’t much benefit in terms of burning calories, by being more active than that.

-> ~230 counts per minute was considered “moderate” activity. The definition of moderate isn’t rigid, but it’s usually something like exercising ~30 minutes a day, ~4 days per week. (This study didn’t look at only exercise though. It looked at all physical activity.)

This is also a dicey statement though. I went over this in regards to people’s eating response after exercise, and it needs to be addressed here again. Let’s look at ~400 counts per minute.

steps and calories burned relationship with 400 bubble

  • For the bottom dot, looks like they burned about 2500 calories per day, being at 400 CPM/d.
  • For the top dot, they burned about 3500 calories per day, being at 400 CPM/D.
  • A thousand calorie difference!

But as we see above, three of the dots are above the line; three are below. Average wise, our group at 400 counts per minute are not burning much more than the group at 250 counts per minute. That number being about 2500 calories.

But, for three of our six people, half, they are burning more than the 2500 calorie mark. Some are burning way more!

This study did not look at individuals and track them as they went from being sedentary to more and more active. It looked at various individuals, however active they were, and compared them to other people.

So, species wise, we can say there seems to be a point where after X amount of activity, 230 counts per minute per day in this case, we don’t get a whole lot of benefit in terms of burning calories. But individually, we don’t know that.

Real world application

Aright, first off, the shitbirds insisting this study means exercise isn’t helpful for weight loss or obesity are either selling something, trying to make themselves feel better for their inability to get off their ass, have trouble with reading comprehension, or don’t live in the real world.

Sedentary in this study meant less than 100 counts per minute per day. Many (many (many)) people who need to lose weight, or who are obese, are sedentary. The counts per minute threshold for where benefits began to taper off significantly was at 230 counts per minute. To be crystal clear:

  • Sedentary = less than 100 counts per minute per day
  • Calories burned tapered off at 230 counts per minute per day

Let’s say the average sedentary person thus gets 50 counts per minute, per day.

Meaning most who need to lose weight, most who are obese, have the ability to get nearly five times more active until they hit the cut off point!

Let’s look at this again:

steps and calories burned relationshipAt 50 counts per minute per day, calories burned was about 2100 per day.

At 230 counts per minute per day, calories burned was about 2500 calories per day.

The average obese person thus has 400 calories per day to STILL worry about, from inactivity. Nearly 25% more calories.

And again, for some, those who who handle people’s exercise and diet will know this, there are even more calories at play, because for some once they get very active, everything else takes care of itself. Where either they’re the person who perhaps does burn more by getting more active, or being active above a certain amount makes them more likely to stick to their diet.

There is absolutely nothing from this study one should take away to encourage not exercising because it won’t help burn calories. It will.

What we should take away from this though is it is undoubtedly true, some people will try, and only fail, to out exercise poor eating habits. That if you’re someone who is already exercising a good deal, maybe three or four hours a week at a nice intensity, and still having weight issues, then exercise, or adding more of it, is not where your effort should be. Your eating habits are. It is true a good amount of people have this mentality, and it can be quite detrimental.

It is also true exercise, in general, is not the best for weight loss. I wrote about this four years ago, and am not the first. It is part of the plan, but often cannot be the plan. We have known this ever since we learned you might burn 100 calories walking a mile, but not eating a couple tablespoons of peanut butter can save you 200 calories.

Finally, I wrote about this five years ago, and still have the same recommendation of not using calorie counters to estimate calories burned from physical activity. Whether it’s the Apple Watch nowadays, FitBit, MyFitnessPal, don’t bother with this feature. This study proves some will go above a certain amount of activity, thinking they burned more calories, but in actuality they’re burning the same amount. But because their counter says they burned an extra amount from being more active, they go eat more. In other words, no technology currently uses a cut off point like found in this study, and all technologies are merely guessing, and probably will forever be guessing, as they can approximate the general population’s cut off point, but they can’t approximate your cutoff point.

Wait, how does this work? Why didn’t people burn more calories? (why you can’t avoid exercising)

You may be wondering why that significant tapering off occurs.

First, this study is not saying if you exercise above the threshold you don’t burn more calories from that exercise. You do.

Second, what we know happens, is if you do something metabolically to people, they often respond in the opposite way.

For example, take the person who is always tapping their thumbs, or moving their leg like this:

Leg Twitching GIF

Overfeed that person, and they may twitch or move about even more.

Ok, now get them moving to something like more than 230 counts per minute per day. They may very well stop twitching the leg as much during the day.

Or, take people who use a standing desk. Use that during the day and you’re more likely to sit less at home. More active at work may mean less active at home.

We compensate. The body is extraordinary in its ability to maintain. Do more of something, and it may deem it necessary to compensate with less of something else.

-> By the way, this is not new. That twitching GIF is from a post of mine from August 2015. I was made aware of this something like 10 years ago, I believe by Lyle McDonald. The authors reference a study from 2003 on this topic. This is old hat.

You do burn more calories the more you exercise. But over the course of the day, you may burn the same amount, due to burning less calories somewhere else.

Now for the actually interesting aspect of all this.

The genesis for this paper was to compare two models, the additive and constrained. Additive being as we get more physical activity, we burn more calories. It all just adds up. The constrained meaning as we get more physically active, we at some point decrease activity elsewhere.

Additive vs constrained hypothesis calories burned

“However, the magnitude of activity energy expenditure for sedentary subjects exceeds the estimated daily cost of standing, fidgeting, and peripheral limb movement that would be missed using our accelerometry protocol, suggesting that muscular activity alone cannot account for activity energy expenditure.”

Then where are these calories going?

“We hypothesize that non-muscular physiological activity contributes substantially to activity energy expenditure and its adaptation to physical activity. Human studies and non-human animal models show that energy allocation across a broad range of physiological tasks, including reproductive activity and somatic maintenance, may be reduced when physical activity increases, resulting in decreased activity energy expenditure. Indeed, such physical activity-induced reduction in activity energy expenditure could potentially contribute to the beneficial health effects of exercise, reducing energy expenditure on inflammation and detrimental immune system activity.”

The idea being other areas of the body get influenced energetically by how physically active one is. As a certain amount of calories are being used on physical activity, other cells, perhaps liver, lung, anything and everything, change their various activities.

This may be an (the?) explanation for why physical activity is seemingly beneficial for practically every health measure we know of. When you are someone who regularly burns calories for exercise, maybe you…

  • Burn less calories when it comes to promoting atherosclerosis
  • Burn less calories when it comes to promoting tumor growth
  • Burn less calories promoting [insert virtually any negative health measure]

Where to have something happen to the body, harmful or beneficial, it takes calories. Is physical activity robbing calories (energy) away from negative things which happen to the body? We know if we exercise too much, then bad things can happen. Women who exercise too much have trouble with amennorhea- they stop having their period. (Often accompanied by being too light.) The body goes “We need too much energy for activity. We don’t have enough to also provide for reproduction right now.” Same thing happens in runners who overdo it. Run too much and respiratory infections go up. Too many calories put towards exercise decreases the amount of calories put towards the immune system, and boom, they’re more likely to get sick?

-> What was particularly interesting in this study was references made to this effect happening even in those with unlimited food intake. There seems to be a barometer for energy output of the body which ignores energy input.

If this is true, it makes perfect sense why we haven’t found (and subsequently won’t find?) a way to avoid physical activity. The only way to direct those calories is through activity. Sure, we can eat less, but what we’re saying here is say you need and eat, just for simplicity, a thousand calories a day.

  • Every other day you burn 1000 calories from exercise.
  • Let’s say on the days you don’t exercise, you put 1000 calories towards promoting plaque in your arteries.
  • But on the days you exercise, you take 1000 calories from promoting plaque in your arteries.

So that every other day, things even out, and your arteries stay clean.

If you only went the eat less route, say only 500 calories, you don’t get the balancing effect of exercise. You promote plaque with 500 calories one day…then again the next…then again…and so on. You’re not changing the ratio. The only way to avoid it would be to eat nothing.

Of course, the best route has always been, and continues to be, to be active and watch what you eat. Nothing above has changed that.

But we may have an even better understanding why physical activity does what it does, how it does it, why no matter how much some want it to be true, that if you don’t do it bad things happen, and why there may be no new technology, no new pills, no new surgery, which can avoid this reality.

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Posted in: Losing weight