When Exercise Fails You - The Answer You Never Thought You'd Receive


Let me present you with a scenario:

You're in or approaching your 30's. Despite your efforts to be healthy you've always struggled with your weight. Over the last few years you have made dramatic changes in your life, and reached a ton of fitness and health goals. But still, you can't seem to lose those daunting extra few pounds. You keep pushing yourself to eat less, exercise more, but it's to no avail. You start to think: "Have all of the internet fitness guru's been lying to me?" 

In short the answer is no. They aren't lying to you. Believe it or not, sometimes the answers to your wellness woes don't lie in the bottom of an empty protein shaker bottle or a sweat covered treadmill. Sometimes the answers lie in your body's unique physiology (ie. the inner workings of your cells and tissues). 

Let's take a step back for a second, and look at this through an evolutionary lens. Your body is designed to be really, really good at storing excess fuel (hence the obesity epidemic in developed countries). Back in early Homo Sapiens evolution, our body's proficiency at storing excess fuel helped us along during tough times. Think food scarcity and famine. Without this ability, humans as a species would have been just a part of evolutionary history ... kind of like the dodo birds. 

Still looking through this evolutionary lens, over the years our physiology hasn't changed that much. Our response to stress is the same, whether we're running away from lions or rushing to meet a deadline. One of these responses is a burst of cortisol - our stress hormone.

The problem arises when too much cortisol is secreted for too long. Back in the days of Neanderthals, if you were hunting for your weekly food supply, your stress was increased (which helps in the hunt), but once the hunting was done, your stress went down. Compared to nowadays with our daily and even hourly deadlines, maybe you meet them, maybe you don't -either way, there is always another deadline. Our body's response is the same in these two instances, except one is prolonged. 

To understand why this is an issue, you must understand the role cortisol plays in a normal functioning system. We have cortisol receptors on almost every tissue in the body, so it's effects are very diverse. Notably, it has an effect on our immune system, controlling salt and water balance and most importantly in this case, regulating metabolism. Too much cortisol in the system for too long can lead to increased fat accumulation, skin changes, and low energy. 

The caveat here is elevated cortisol, or a disruption in it's normal cyclical pattern, can cause dysfunction. Commonly, cortisol is increased with stress from work, life, AND ... Too much exercise with too few calories. I bet you didn't see that coming!

This is something I have seen many times in clinical practice - someone who keeps pushing the boundaries of caloric intake vs expenditure. 

To put it simply, here's the fix: exercise less, eat more, but you really should consult your Naturopathic Doctor before doing so. 

So, did exercise fail you? 

No, it was the millions of years of evolutionary prowess built into your genes getting the best of you. 

Thanks for reading,

Dr. Oake