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How to gain body fat while exercising a lot


Could it really be possible to exercise for as much as 14 hours a week and still gain body fat?  The answer is yes; as scary as that may seem.

Exercise without diet

A few weeks back I shared with you an article called “When Exercise Doesn’t Work.”

In that article, I reviewed some fascinating new research demonstrating that, without a dietary intervention, exercise doesn’t have much of an impact on body composition.

Even to the tune of 6 hours per week.  Even when it’s high intensity exercise.

Participants following an exercise plan, without being cognizant of their nutritional intake, only tend to lose an extra pound of fat vs. those folks who do nothing for the same 12-16 weeks.

Disheartening, I know.  But oh so true. Especially when supported by this new information I’m going to share with you today.

More support for the “no diet hypothesis”

Just yesterday, I received an interesting email from Dr Gary Homann, a faculty member at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO.

Gary, intrigued by my last article, shared with me the results from a very telling study he completed back in 2003. Here’s what he found.

Two hours a day and they still gained fat

In Dr Homann’s study, 56 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 – all of whom were in a program run by the South Dakota Department of Corrections – volunteered to get involved in a 4-6 month wellness program.

The idea was to have the girls exercise for about 14 hours per week (2 hours per day consisting of various activities such as hiking, running, circuit training, step aerobics and basketball) while following the USDA Food Guide, as it appeared in 2003.

At the beginning of the study and again at the end, a host of measures were recorded, including:

  • A step test and timed mile for cardiovascular fitness
  • Height, weight, body mass index (BMI), skinfolds (for % body fat), waist and hips circumference for body composition
  • Shuttle run for agility
  • Standing jump, sit-ups and bench press test for muscular strength and endurance
  • And sit-and-reach and straddle tests for flexibility

So, what happened?

Well, as expected, cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, agility, and flexibility all improved. That’s great!

What’s not so great is that body composition measures worsened. Instead of losing body weight and fat, these girls, on average, gained 6lbs, increased their waist circumference by 1/2 and inch, increased their hip circumference by 3/4 of an inch, and increased their body fat by over 1/2 a percentage point.

Now, I don’t know about you. But this isn’t exactly what I’d expect to happen if I went on a 14 hour per week exercise binge!

The USDA Food Pyramid circa 2003
(Note: the pyramid has since been updated…thank god!

Exercise + the food pyramid

As you’d imagine, I’m kinda disappointed to learn that it’s actually possible to gain body fat when exercising 2 hours per day, every single day. You’re probably disappointed too.

However, what’s even more disappointing is the fact that it’s possible while actually following a nutrition plan!

Remember, participants in this study were following the recommendations of the USDA – you know, that famous food pyramid that everyone talks about. The one that dietitians across the land recommend that we follow. The one recommending 6-11 servings of breads, cereals, and pastas each day.

(Now, it is true that the USDA has since changed their recommendations – for the better. But can you blame me if I’m a little gun shy on backing their new recommendations? Especially after the checkered history of the last food pyramid?)

Questioning the design

Now, you might have some questions about the study design…as I did when first reading it.

  • After all, maybe the girls didn’t follow the USDA plan to a “T”…
  • Or maybe they were going thru puberty at the time of the study and that explains the fat gain…
  • Or maybe being put in a detention center isn’t exactly conducive to fat loss in the first place.

Well, after speaking with Dr. Homann, I’m pretty confident that these factors can’t really explain away the fact that these girls exercised for 2 hours every single day, while following the USDA’s guidelines, and got fatter.

  • For starters, the girls were living in a detention center and they were provided all their meals. So there wasn’t much room to cheat.
  • Further, the girls were starting out quite over fat. Indeed, their average body fat was just over 30% to begin with. So they did have fat to lose. And their fat gain can’t be explained by simply “getting older” or “puberty”.

The bottom line

I could probably go on and on here…but I’ll spare you that. Instead, I’d like to simple say the following.

The data are pouring in.And they paint a pretty clear picture. If you want to look better, feel better, and perform at the top of your game, you definitely have to exercise…(although 14 hours a week probably isn’t necessary).

But, even more importantly, you’ve got to look after your nutrition – specifically what you eat, how much you eat, and when you eat it.

Indeed, without the right nutritional intake, you simply can’t expect inspiring, noticeable results. Heck, in some cases, you might even expect to get worse!

So don’t leave your nutrition up to chance.

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