Making Exercise More Effective

Q: How do you turn an ineffective, weight-loss program into a fat incinerating activity?

A: Couple exercise with the correct nutritional intervention!

Increasingly, researchers, as well as the lay public, are recognizing that fat-loss programs consisting of exercise alone are remarkably ineffective. Recent studies have shown that even after three months of 4-5 hours of structured, supervised physical activity per week, many adult fail to lose more than a couple of lbs. Imagine – you sign on with a personal trainer and three months later and several thousand dollars poorer, you have only lost 3 lbs of fat for your efforts; talk about depressing!

If losing body fat is your goal, it is paramount to remember that you don’t actually lose body fat or build muscle at the gym. Weight training and cardiovascular training are just stimuli for change. In the absence of the proper nutritional and recovery practices, sustainable fat loss is next to impossible.

In fact, one weight loss truism is:

You can’t out-train a bad diet.

Consider the following example. It takes you approximately 30 minutes of treadmill running to burn 300 kcal. Conversely, in 20 seconds you can consume a 300 kcal donut. So unless you plan on devoting 6-8 hours a day training away enough calories to eat whatever you want, the greatest way to control calories is through your diet.

Unfortunately, complicating the fat loss picture is that not all calories are created equally. A 2000 kcal diet consisting of cakes, cookies, breads and sugary drinks produces vastly different metabolic outcomes than a 2000 kcal diet consisting of lean proteins, vegetables, healthy fats and natural water. In fact, your body will store much less body fat eating 2500 kcal worth of clean foods than it will if you eat 1700 kcal worth of junk. The interaction between certain nutrients and our hormonal system is just that significant.

Given our complex, and often confusing, biological system, trying to lose fat can be frustrating. But what if I told you there is one simple dietary change that could transform whatever exercise you are currently doing into one exponentially more effective in helping you lose body fat? I thought that might get your attention.

For a long time now, many highly regarded strength coaches have been touting the wonders of fish oil for body composition. However, despite numerous coaches claiming impressive results using fish oil with their athletes and clients, research support for fish oil as a fat-loss tool has been lacking (in humans anyway, fish oil is some kind of wonder drug for rats).

Although decades of research has shown fish oil to be beneficial for cardiovascular health, brain function and inflammation control, it wasn’t until relatively recently that studies have demonstrated that fish oil consumption may assist with body fat losses in humans. Thankfully, a short while ago, a study out of Australia by Alison Hill and colleagues demonstrated just how effective fish oil can be.

Hill et al. investigated the effects of high dose fish oil consumption on blood lipids and body composition, in a group of overweight volunteers. The researchers placed their subjects into one of four treatment groups.

  1. A group receiving 6 g/day of safflower (a predominantly omega-6 fat)
  2. A group receiving 6/day of a tuna oil (a predominant omega-3 fat, including 1500 mg DHA)
  3. A group receiving the safflower oil + three 45 minutes exercise sessions per week
  4. A group receiving the fish oil + three 45 minute exercise sessions per week

The entire study ran for 12 weeks, which is a pretty standard length of time for an exercise and diet intervention. None of the participants received specific diet counseling other than regular check ups to ensure they were consuming their fish oil. Additionally, the researchers took diet records at regular intervals to verify that all groups consumed a similar diet throughout the entire study period. So in terms of dietary control for free-living individuals, the researchers did a good job minimizing potential confounding variables.

Unfortunately, the researchers selected a pretty terrible exercise intervention from a fat-loss perspective. Subjects were only required to walk for 45 minutes, 3x/week at 75% of their theoretical maximum heart rate. This is pretty much the bare minimum you can do and still call it exercise. Sad they weren’t asked to do more, but I suppose the primary goal of this research project was to assess changes in risk factors for cardiovascular disease and not prepare someone for a figure competition.

At the conclusion of the 12-week intervention, the researchers found that both fish oil groups experienced significant improvements in their blood lipid profiles and arterial compliance. Obviously these outcomes are tremendous and suggests that fish oil helps reduce your risk for a heart attack. But that is old news. What was truly novel was their findings of the effects of fish oil on body composition. Take a look at their results:

Hill et al.  Am J Clin Nutr 2007; 85:1267–74.

From these results we can draw several important conclusions:

Fish Oil

  1. Fish oil makes even a lame exercise intervention, dramatically more effective for fat loss
  2. Taking fish oil alone does not magically burn fat

Safflower Oil

  1. A diet high in omega-6 fats impedes fat loss and catabolizes muscle tissue
  2. Exercise helps minimize the harmful effects of high dose omega-6 fat consumption

What is clear from these results is that the combined effects of diet and exercise produce significantly better results than either approach alone. Even though total fat loss was only 4 lbs in the fish oil + exercise group, remember this study didn’t entail any specific calorie reduction and consisted of a terrible exercise program. In light of those considerations, a 4 lbs loss of body fat is actually pretty spectacular. One could reasonably conclude that even better results would be obtained by optimizing both your diet and exercise program.

My theory for why Hill and colleagues were able to show these impressive results where other people have not is due to their use of a very concentrated dose of fish oil. The dose of they used provided almost 2 grams of combined eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) per day, with the DHA concentration contributing over 1500 mg! Conversely, most fish oil studies use a relatively modest dose of 1-2 capsules per day. Given that most commercial fish oil contains 180 mg of EHA and 120 mg of DHA, the dose commonly studied is likely too low to assist with fat loss.

At present, it’s unclear whether EPA or DHA play a greater role in assisting with fat loss. If we consider DHA to be the key ingredient (I’m not stating that for a fact, I’m merely going on what this study showed), then it would take 13 regular strength fish oil capsules to provide the optimal fat loss dose. Which is quite the number of pills!

Clearly not everyone seeking extra fat loss is jumping at the prospect of ingesting 13 giant pills a day. If popping pills isn’t your idea of a good time, many health food stores carry concentrated liquid fish oil supplements that provides almost 1500 mg of DHA in a 1-2 tsp serving. I’ve currently starting using a liquid fish oil concentrate from Ascenta Nutrasea. In my opinion, this is definitely the way to go. You get a maximal dose for a minimal cost and inconvenience.

Now before anyone decides to start flooding my comment section with claims that 13 fish oil pills a day is dangerous, consider that a 3-oz piece of salmon provides almost 600 mg of EPA and 1200 mg of DHA. There are countless populations around that world that consume fatty fish on a daily basis with no apparent ill-effects to health. In fact, regular fish eaters tend to be a lot healthier than your typical North American.

So if building a bullet-proof heart and a slender physique seems like a good idea to you, starting making fish or a concentrated fish oil supplement part of your daily routine. The only thing you have to lose are those few extra pounds around your midsection.