The cardio diet to deficit reduction – a modern fable

MuscleEverybody in the west knows the fabled effectiveness of weight-loss dietary programs designed around intense cardiovascular regimes which burn huge amounts of calories. The people who work hard, doing as much cardio as possible lose weight. Those that pump iron may get muscular, but they aren’t working as hard and they don’t lose weight, they gain it. The moral of the story? When it comes to losing weight, cardio works, weights don’t.

Yet life is more complex than that. In the real world, cardio workouts alone aren’t the failsafe way to weight loss. If you work too hard, you burn too many calories and your body eats your muscle which slows your metabolism down and makes you gain weight.

Brian’s tale

Let’s look at Brian. He’s a world class athlete. But he has been living high on the hog for quite a while. That wasn’t a problem until recently. Now, he is a bit bloated and fat and wants to go on a diet to lose weight to stay on his coach Hermann’s team. Three of Brian’s teammates, George, Jose Luis and Jose, are also in jeopardy of being cut from the team and need to lose weight. What should Brian do?

Well, Brian consults his sister Angela. She’s also on the team. While she has had a minor weight problem for the last ten years, she’s definitely in better shape than Brian right now. She tells Brian that she has dieted in the past and that the sure fire way to losing weight is working hard and burning a lot of calories in an intensive cardio program. Burning off calories has always worked for her.

Brian’s trainer, Dominque (DSK for short) tells him Angela is right and prescribes a tough cardio regimen for our friend. Brian follows the program assiduously. But rather than losing weight, he gains weight. What happened?

Does Jose Luis learn from Brian?

Jose Luis sees Brian’s experience and is petrified. His fitness coach DSK gave him the same advice. Now he’s not so sure this is the right thing to do. Looking around for answers, he asks his strength coach Rob P for advice. Rob P says "you’re working too hard and burning too many calories. Your body is eating into your muscle, which is slowing your metabolism down. And you aren’t strength training." Jose Luis is perplexed. "Wow I didn’t realize that you could burn too many calories. Rob P answers, "Let me explain how the body works. Your body needs a certain number of calories throughout the day in order to function, and more importantly for you, to maintain muscle."

Jose Luis cuts in with, “I don’t care about my muscle. What does that have to do with my losing weight?”

"Jose Luis, your muscle is going to be what regulates your metabolism. The more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn throughout the day. This is known as your base metabolic rate. If you burn too many calories by over-training, your body starts eating your muscles as well as your fat, slowing your metabolism. The result is you lose strength, you end up gaining weight and you become weaker."

"Now I get it. But I’m not sure if I can do that. If people see me doing strength training and not cutting back when everyone thinks eating a lot less is the only way to lose weight, I’m going to be off the team in a hurry?"

"Good point. I don’t know what to say.  Maybe you’re on the wrong team. Maybe you need to go solo, Jose Luis."

"Maybe."

Barry takes notes

Barry is not on Angela, Jose Luis and Brian’s team. He’s solo. So he doesn’t have the same constraints where eating less is the only way to lose weight. He has  a lot more options than George, Jose and company. If he chooses, he could try strength training too. If he does just enough cardio and just enough strength training, he might be able to lose the weight without cutting into his muscle too much. He would be stronger and his metabolism would be faster. When he went up against Team Euro, he would win hands down.

But Barry is advised by Larry and Tim who studied physical fitness at the same school DSK did. And their recommendation to Barry is that he follow a similar high intensity cardio but muscle-losing program that failed for Brian and that Jose Luis is bent on trying tempered with a bit of strength training.  Unfortunately, the cardio is too much and in all likelihood, Barry’s metabolism will slow. He will gain weight but also lose muscle.  Who cares, though? It’s not like Angela and Jose Luis are gaining muscle.  It only matters to Barry’s family who depend on how well he does to earn a living. And right now, it looks like they are looking pretty depressed.

Deficits, Spending and Taxes

Think of this as a tale of government spending and deficits. The longer-term goal is to reduce deficits as one would reduce weight. There are two ways to go about this. One is to cut as much spending as possible, the equivalent of a highly focused cardio regimen and its calorie burning intensity. The second is for the government to create jobs to increase GDP and the tax base while strengthening the competitiveness of the economy as one might pump iron to gain strength and muscle, increasing the metabolic rate. Clearly, if one over-trains by pumping iron and eating too much, one gains weight just as wasteful spending misallocates resources and increases the deficit. But, there are risks to cardio over-training which causes muscles to atrophy, slowing the metabolism and increasing weight where the economic analogue comes in the form of depression, the dead-weight economic loss of healthy companies’ insolvency, tax loss from high long-term unemployment, and ultimately higher deficits.

It looks like we’re in for a lot of cardio across the entire developed world and not enough strength training.  My prediction is serious weight gain and serious muscle loss. I now believe GDII is coming and I will have a lot more to say about this in an upcoming post.

Sources

Why Cardio Alone Doesn’t Cut Fat – EliteFTS

The dreadful potential of frugality – Edward Chancellor, FT

9 Comments
  1. carlosjii says

    Does Arnold Schwarzenegger know about this??????

  2. Guest says

    This is a great post! You have creatively captured the start-stop process that modern “unconstrained” nations employ with deficits.

    But you didn’t finish the analogy.

    Gastric bypass surgery for obesity = voluntary debt default. (But don’t tell this to the MMT crowd.)

    See this piece in the Atlantic:
    “When Every Diet Fails, the Radical Solution”

    http://www.theatlantic.com/food/archive/2009/03/when-every-diet-fails-the-radical-solution/1721/

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