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#8: My Experience with Exercise Bulimia and Thoughts About the Role Exercise Plays in Weight Loss

Feb 19, 2020



Historically, diet and exercise have been prescribed as treatments for obesity as if they are equally important. We assume that we can burn off the calories that we eat.  

In reality, what and when we eat is responsible for much more of our weight loss and maintenance success than exercise. 

Remember, I am a Physical Therapist and a huge advocate of exercise, but not just to burn calories! This is the wrong way to think about exercise.

There are many health benefits and exercise has been proven to be a key component in healthy aging and disease prevention. But when it comes to weight loss we are tremendously over-estimating its utility.  

To quote Dr. Fung on p. 54, “Exercise is like brushing your teeth. It’s good for you and should be done everyday. Just don’t expect to lose weight.”  

One unspoken assumption of the “eat less, exercise more” philosophy is that reduced levels of physical activity have led to the obesity epidemic. 

On page 52, Dr. Fung concludes that it is “highly improbable that decreased exercise played any role in causing obesity in the first place. If lack of exercise was not the cause of the obesity epidemic, exercise is probably not going to reverse it.” 

In today’s episode I not only talk about the science behind why exercise is beneficial when losing weight, just maybe not as much as originally thought, but I’ll also share some of my personal story with exercise bulimia. 

I had this condition in high school and once I broke free of my compulsion to exercise all of the time to burn off calories I just ate, I felt more freedom, and had more mental headspace to focus on the habit that mattered much more to my health...nutrition. 


Here’s a recap of what I talk about in this episode. 

>> Point #1: First, I explain that there are three major factors that limit the utility of exercise when trying to lose weight. The first is that exercise is a small percentage of the total calories burned. The second is the fact that your body tries to replace the calories you just burned to maintain a stable state. And lastly, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.  

>> Point #2: Next, I discuss that exercise during weight loss has been shown to help preserve lean muscle mass when losing weight. This can actually slow your weight loss because muscle tissue weighs more than fat. 

>> Point #3: Lastly, I talk about how exercise can help you lose weight in an unexpected way, by lowering your stress and share with you two types of exercise that are especially helpful tools for stress reduction. 


Let’s take a look at a few highlights of this episode…

>> [03:07] In high school I had a condition called exercise bulimia. I never made myself throw up, instead, I would exercise off the calories I ate. This started pretty young. I remember during the summer time I would sit in front of our small TV and watch a show and eat Peanut Butter Captain Crunch cereal, then at commercial go outside and jump on the trampoline to burn the calories. 

>> [06:40] There are 3 major factors that limit the utility of exercise when trying to lose weight. The first is that exercise is a small percentage of the total calories burned. The real term for “calories out” is total energy expenditure, or how much energy our body uses. Total energy expenditure = basal metabolic rate + thermogenic effect of food + non-exercise activity thermogenesis + excess post-exercise oxygen consumption + exercise.

>> [15:28] Exercise during weight loss has been shown to help preserve lean muscle mass when losing weight. I talked about tips to preserve your muscle mass when losing weight episode #5 so I will link to that in the show notes. Research has shown that both aerobic and resistance exercise can help you preserve muscle mass when losing weight, especially if you are getting enough protein in your diet. 

>> [16:57] How exercise can help you lose weight in an unexpected way - by lowering your stress. Exercise can help you lose weight in a roundabout way by lowering your stress and reducing cortisol levels. When you exercise, your endorphins, or what I like to call your happy hormones, are released and this can help you feel less stressed not just while you are exercising but afterwards as well. 

>> [19:46] So here is your homework for this week. I would LOVE to see you add a little stretching to your life. Maybe use an implementation intention, something I’ve talked about before on this podcast, to make time in your schedule.

Click here to listen!


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Links Mentioned in This Episode

>> The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung

>> Blog Post | The Obesity Code Chapter 4: The Exercise Myth

>> Episode #5: Eat More of THIS to Reduce Loss of Lean Muscle When Losing Weight

>> Stress, Sleep, and Weight Gain Workshop Recap

>> Yoga Studio: Mind & Body Application 

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