This Doctor’s Secret to Keeping Excess Weight Off

By Dr. Scott Rosenthal

Exercise is vitally important for optimum health, but it can be so boring and exhausting. Plus, staying motivated presents a challenge. Like most, I was taught that I must be handcuffed to a piece of moving equipment for hours each week to achieve any results. “Burn calories, burn calories” was the mantra. After studying the current research, I found this to be not only false, but also a possible CAUSE of weight gain!

Wait a minute! Am I suggesting that that doing aerobic activity— such as jogging, walking or chugging along on an elliptical machine or stair climber over a 20-60 minute period, five to six times each week— can cause weight gain? YES, that is exactly what I’m saying! This is due to our body's incredible ability to adapt to the demands of its environment— otherwise known as its drive for survival. 

Aerobics came into vogue in the 1960s when Dr. Kenneth Cooper published “Aerobics.” Since then, the continuous movement of large muscle groups for periods of time lasting 20 minutes or longer has been touted as the choice for those seeking weight loss or preventing extra pounds. The reality is that aerobic activity does burn calories once a certain point of time is reached, but there is a better way to shed extra pounds and keep them off: by shifting how we think about exercise and weight loss/control.

The best exercise strategy is NOT working out with the goal of burning a few hundred calories. But don’t throw away your running shoes or cancel your gym membership just yet! From today on, let's exercise to challenge our bodies to change the survival objective and alter how calories are stored.

In most workouts that involve walking or aerobics, we will burn an average of 50-300 calories. This quantity is within the available amount of sugar stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. After performing long, low-intensity exercise, many people fail to reach the point where they are drawing significant fuel from fat. It typically takes about 45 minutes before the fat stores are tapped. Due to the low blood-sugar levels created, most find themselves exhausted, irritable and ravenous following exercise, which leads them to load up on calories.

In order to survive long bouts of low-intensity activity, the body depends on fat stores for its extended endurance needs. Performing this type of exercise signals the body to store calories as fat. If our body could talk, it would say each time we eat, “I'd better keep my fat stores full in order to survive the next low-intensity endurance session.”

In order to maintain (or regain) our optimum weight, we need to stimulate our body to burn fat instead of storing it. We also need to perform activity that quickly starts using fat for fuel by first rapidly depleting the energy stored in your muscles and liver!

Interval training satisfies all of the above needs. It consists of alternating low and high intensity activity performed in a single session lasting between 9-30 minutes. The high intensity portion quickly uses up the fuel stored in the muscles. This causes the body to pull energy from the bloodstream and stimulates the breakdown of fat. Interval training over time causes a useful adaptation for survival and increases the ability of the body to store calories in the muscles, instead of as fat. Now, if you could talk to your body it would say, “I'd better keep storing more of my calories in the muscles for the next intense activity requiring quick and available energy.”

One additional benefit found in interval training is that calories are burned continuously for hours following a workout, whereas it stops almost immediately following low-intensity, long duration exercise. Other benefits range from an improved cardiovascular system to enhanced immune function.

Tips for performing an interval training routine:

1.      Use your favorite piece of cardio equipment (I prefer to alternate between a stationary bicycle and stair climber machine).

2.      Start at a very low intensity setting accomplishing about 50% of your target heart rate for 2-3 minutes.

3.      Increase the tension enough to achieve about 70-90% of your target heart rate or to the point where you feel like you “run out of gas” after about 10-60 seconds (depending on your fitness level). Changing the tension is superior to just going faster— it wears less on your joints and prevents injury.

4.      Follow the high intensity with another 2-3-minute period with no or little tension while your heart rate drops back down.

5.      Repeat about 6 times with high intensity and end with a 3-5 minute cool down.
Perform on an empty stomach, preferably in the morning before breakfast (this dramatically increases your results).

6.      Take at least one day off in between workouts for adequate recovery and to avoid the fat-stimulating effects of over-exercising.

Although interval training can be modified and performed safely with most individuals, it is demanding on the heart, lungs and muscles. Please check with your doctor prior to starting a routine. Also, be sure that you are properly trained to use the chosen piece of equipment.

The information in this article is not meant to suggest that you should stop taking walks, bike rides and other activities that reduce stress, aid in digestion or provide leisure time with friends, family or your dog.

Pound for pound, the secret of meaningful and permanent weight loss and maintenance is through interval training. I love the results, the time it saves, and how easy and comfortable it is to perform. I recommend it to my patients. If you are frequently cuffed to cardio equipment for extended time periods, or not doing anything at all, consider using interval training. Just a few minutes each week will profoundly improve your shape and state of health.