Eat less. Exercise more. Simple, right? All you have to do is add an extra day or two at the gym, crank up the intensity and start squeezing any unneeded calories out of your diet and before you know it you’ll have a flat stomach and those chiseled suprailiac lines on your pelvis (“v-cut” for the layman). It seems, at first, like being able to do basic math and showing up to your workouts is all it takes to have a body worthy of a magazine cover.
Yet it seems like the religious gym-goers, Soul Cycle addicts and weekly fat loss boot-camp attendees are less fit than ever. But why? How is it possible that living at the gym, eating nothing but broccoli, chicken and egg whites and burning out the motors on their favorite pieces of cardio equipment has left exercise addicts scratching their heads as to why their pudge won’t budge? It’s because of a simple, yet not widely-accepted fact about the human body: eating too little and overexercising is actually the fast track to fat.
Is this blasphemy? No. It is the truth about a number of complex systems in our bodies that make up our metabolism. With respect to fat-loss and exercise, metabolism simply denotes the rate and efficiency at which the human body burns through calories. This collection of processes is a fragile operation that can easily be thrown off for any number of reasons. Everyone knows the one guy or girl at the office who is constantly eating, yet walks around lean, healthy and defined. They just have a freak metabolism, you think while miserably eating your #hashtag meal-prepped lunch of chicken, asparagus and brown rice, still stiff from your morning cardio. Is it your co-worker’s God-given genetics, or is it the fact that they are not actively depriving themselves of food on a daily basis that causes them to look that damn good?
It’s both, actually. But even for the average endomorph who naturally carries more adipose tissue on their frame, a highly demanding exercise regimen coupled with extremely low calorie eating, will only take them further away from their weight-loss goals. The human body is sensitive. It doesn’t like being forced to do things and when it feels threatened (through calorie-deprivation, for example) it reacts unfavorably. It’s like taking a child’s favorite toy away without warning; the kid is going to whine and cry and make the parent’s life a living hell until they give the toy back! This is exactly what the body does when you ask it to do too much physically without giving it enough fuel to carry out the task. The metabolism actually slows down with too much exercise, performance decreases and fat, as a result of the cumulative stress, begins to accumulate.
Exercise, when executed properly, should be done in such a way that it elicits a particular response from the body. The scientific name for this is the SAID principle, which stands for “specific adaptations to imposed demands.” Every workout someone does places a demand on the body, and as a result the body must react or get better at meeting that demand over time. This requires rest and more importantly, food. Recovering from a high-intensity strength training workout takes, on average, twenty-four to forty-eight hours. During that time, cells are regenerating as the body prepares itself for the next workout. Simply because a person is not aware of these internal events, does not mean that they are not happening. A well-planned strength training workout, for example, will boost your metabolism, but only if you give your metabolism something to burn up during the recovery phase. Additionally, not providing ample time for this recovery period to occur will also hamper the entire process.
Listen, in a perfect word, we could all sleep ten hours a day, work out as much as we wanted and probably all look as shredded as if we walked right out of an ancient Greek myth. But in reality, we have other obligations—work, family, school—that need to be taken into consideration when undergoing an exercise routine. A person working eighty hour weeks, for example, is going to be under a significant amount of stress outside of the gym, and may have to cut back on their training as a result, whereas a high school student with fewer obligations may be able to get away with more physical activity. Stress in general, poor sleep and processed foods can all slow down our metabolisms and we need to take these things into account when we start exercising.
The point here is that “more” doesn’t always equal “better” when it comes to working out. Frequency isn’t nearly as important as quality when it comes to exercise. We live in a society that endorses pushing oneself to their absolute limit, but there is a fine line between discipline and overwork. Waking up four days a week, lifting weights and eating a well-rounded diet is plenty to get most people the results they want. It requires consistency and some planning, but won’t take the average gym-goer into the realm of overdoing it.
So, if you’re reading this article as you count out your almonds and pack your gym bag for workout number two of the day, maybe put down the shaker of pre-workout and give yourself a break. Watch a movie, read a book, eat your favorite snack—do something to give your body a break. Exercise should be a part of everyone’s life in some way, but like many things, sometimes you need time away to remember why it made you feel so good in the first place. Treat it like an experiment. Cut your weekly workouts in half and just see what happens. The results might just be enough to make you a believer in the value of a little rest and relaxation.