When it comes to weight loss, people often think that you need to spend countless hours in the gym, pounding away at the treadmill while you watch reruns of How I Met Your Mother. Not only do you not need much time in the gym, it might be optimal to spend it elsewhere. Here's why.
More Isn't Necessarily Better
When it comes to weight loss, diet is more important than exercise. Your body burns the majority of its calories by simply keeping you living and breathing. Burning additional calories, while still beneficial in many contexts, only marginally adds to your caloric total. It's like taking a paper route when you have a $100,000/year salary.
At the lower end, adding additional exercise when you already have a reasonable diet structure through counting calories or mindful eating yields a lower return on investment (or ROI) on your time. Some may be fine with spending an extra few minutes eking out an additional caloric deficit, but it's important to remember that we have limited amounts of time, energy and -- most importantly -- willpower.
At the higher end, an extreme amount of exercise on top of a caloric deficit can actually be detrimental. It can lead to chronically elevated cortisol, as well as eventual resistance of leptin, the hormone that your body uses to regulate the amount of fat that you carry. (It's probably no coincidence that contestants on The Biggest Loser end up gaining back all of the weight they lost.)
Why Less Might Be More
Nutritionist and creator of the "Leangains" method, Martin Berkhan, uses the famous marshmallow research experiment to explain why a minimum dose of exercise might actually be better:
In the early 1970s, a psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted an experiment involving four-year-olds. He placed each child in a room, where they sat down at a table. In front of them, a marshmallow. Mischel then made each child an offer. He could eat the marshmallow right away or wait for a few more minutes and receive another one. Almost everyone decided to wait. Mischel then left the room for twenty minutes.
… the successful children employed in order to endure the experiment. They kept themselves distracted. Covered their eyes, played with their hands or just entered a trance-like state where it seemed they were lost in their thoughts. Their attention was elsewhere.
The failed strategy of the unsuccessful children was the complete opposite of that; in essence, they fixated on the marshmallow almost as if attempting to stare it down, actively fighting the temptation.
Weight loss is no different. The more time and energy you spend devoted to a regimen, the more likely you are to zap yourself of willpower and hit a breaking point. For most, exercise best fits into your life when it's seamless -- a background task, not a ceremonious event to fixate on.
Strength Train For A High ROI Exercise Regimen
While cardio may not yield the highest ROI when it comes to exercising for weight loss, strength training is the opposite. Strength training allows you to add additional lean body mass, which burns calories at rest.
If cardio is like paying off a credit card, strength training is like paying a mortgage. With the latter, you're building an asset over time. And, best of all, it doesn't take that much time. Building muscle can be simplified into one simple concept: increase the weight, repetitions (also known as "reps"), or volume that you can do in a given exercise. This concept is known as "progressive overload". The result is an increase in muscle size -- a process known as muscular hypertrophy.
The best part is that you can build an effective exercise regimen starting with as little as three thirty minute workout sessions per week, such as this one.
Of course, everyone's exercise tolerance will vary. Some will do better with more exercise, especially if you especially enjoy activities like cardio. The important thing to note is that you don't need to spend hours on exercise when you're on a diet. Keeping it to a minimum dose might be the best way to not fixate on that proverbial marshmallow.