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One of the most reliable ways to lose weight is by limiting calories. Eat fewer calories than you take in and your weight will go down. Guaranteed. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.
Biological systems are very inefficient. About the best they can manage is 50%. That means for every two calories you burn, at most you get only one calorie of work. The rest is lost through heat and overall heat loss is usually much higher. In other words, your calorie expenditure mostly goes toward keeping you warm enough to metabolize, not to moving your body from point A to B.
When you run on the treadmill and keep track of the calories you expend while exercising, you are looking at the wrong numbers.
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Warm-blooded animals need to maintain a certain level of body heat to stay alive. There are ways we conserve heat through insulation and controlling peripheral circulation, but we mammals are all built to generate heat and these mechanisms are crucial to understanding how to maximize calorie use while restricting consumption.
Since heat loss rather than work performed during exercise is where most of the energy goes, it stands to reason that anything that increases the need for heat will help us burn more fat. Fat is relatively inefficient – better at producing heat than work – so heat loss also tends to favor fat loss.
One of the problems with simple calorie restriction without thought to quality nutrition is that you risk metabolizing protein and losing muscle. Let’s be clear. When we speak of wanting to lose weight, we mean lose fat. When you lose your muscle mass, you are losing your furnace. Muscles burn energy. Any good weight loss strategy has to consider maintaining, even building, lean body mass. If you don’t understand this, you will be discouraged when initially you gain weight from exercise because muscle grows faster than fat disappears.
Your body has internal mechanisms for metabolizing fat for the specific purpose of maintaining body heat. In our modern world, we are seldom exposed to uncomfortable levels of cold. We heat our homes and put on a sweater. But in the days when humans had less access to central heating and warm clothing, they did quite well through simply adapting internally to changes in the weather. We all still have this innate ability to ramp up our fat burning.
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Consider this: Michael Phelps was known for eating 12,000 calories a day while training. That’s almost as much as the average man eats in a week. Twelve hours a day of butterfly stroke wouldn’t require that much energy. Phelps loses most of his calories to the water around him in the pool, which isn’t even especially cold.
You can take advantage of the “Phelps Effect” by submersing your body into cool water every day. You don’t need to immediately start with ice water baths or joint the Polar Bears. Just get in a pool or even a bathtub of cool water. Stay until it starts to get uncomfortable. Over time your body will naturally, effortlessly, and without significant discomfort, adapt itself to burning more calories by inducing fat-burning enzymes in your core.
(Author preparing for a morning dip in the lake)
I swim in the lake every morning until it freezes over in the winter. I swam in a snow storm on the Winter Solstice once. As summer turns to fall, the water gets gradually colder and my body adapts. By October, I can feel – literally feel – my core fire up and start to glow inside from the heat the second my big toe touches the water. I swim for a few minutes and come out feeling warm and toasty on the inside. I still feel the cold – it just doesn’t bother me.
Belly fat – the fat around your intestines – is much more readily available for use than fat under your skin. For that reason, as you increase fat burning, the belly fat melts away first and your waistline shrinks. Control your calorie consumption and the fat will disappear while minimizing loss of lean body tissue.
Professional weight loss programs often ask you to measure your neck, chest, waist and upper thigh. This isn’t necessary. The only measurement that matters is your waistline. This makes swimming in cool water one of the simplest and fastest ways of losing weight.
Intelligent exercise is important for many reasons but hours on the treadmill at the deceptively labelled “fat burning” range is not a smart way to lose weight. Your time would be much better spent relaxing in the pool, enjoying cold, low-calorie drinks. Tim Ferriss, in his excellent book “The 4-Hour Body” tells of a man who successfully lost weight just by drinking lots of cold water and taking walks wearing light clothing.