I have a friend, a retired pro racer, who says weight management is easy, “Just ride more and eat less.” But it’s not this simple.
Why It Matters
Being even slightly overweight can increase your risk of dying prematurely by six percent and increases the risk by 73% for an obese person. Researchers concluded this after reviewing the mortality data in three studies that followed more than 225,000 adults over age 50, for eight to 20 years. (Annals of Internal Medicine, April 3, 2017).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about one-third of U.S. adults are overweight and another one third are obese. The CDC uses the body mass index (BMI) to indirectly assess body fat and thus whether an individual is overweight or obese. You can calculate your BMI here.
An earlier macro study appeared to show being slightly overweight was healthful. This column No Amount of Overweight is Healthful) by Dr. Gabe Mirkin explains why this flawed.
The problems with BMI
BMI is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters. A 5’10” (1.78 m) male is usually considered to be overweight at 175 pounds (75 kg) and obese at 210 pounds (90.7 kg).
BMI stats are useful in large epidemiological studies. However, because a person’s weight is a function of both body fat and muscle, a high BMI may or may not diagnose the body fat or health of an individual. BMI also doesn’t assess an individual’s metabolic health “like their insulin resistance, markers of inflammation and blood pressure, triglyceride, cholesterol and glucose levels. Nearly half of those classified as overweight and about a quarter of those classified as obese were metabolically healthy by these measures. On the other hand, 31 percent of those with a ‘normal’ body mass index were metabolically unhealthy.” (New York Times)
As a cyclist you have more muscle and less fat than the average person. If you are five or ten pounds over what the BMI defines as normal you probably aren’t actually overweight because of your higher proportion of muscles. Whether your BMI says your overweight or normal may be misleading — ask your health care professional to do the appropriate metabolic tests.
Weight and Aging
Scientists thought each decade after age 30 your metabolism slowed by about 2% per decade of life. If you weigh 175 lbs at age 40 and continue the same dietary and exercise habits then you’d weigh 178.5 lbs (2% more) at age 50 and 182 lbs at age 60.
In a new macro study researchers pooled data from 40 years of studies of more than 6,400 participants, ranging in age from eight days to 95 years. Researchers found the changes in the metabolic rate across the life span were different than expected. “According to the new study, metabolism can be viewed as four distinct life stages: Energy expenditure accelerates rapidly to 50 percent above adult values at one year of age; declines slowly to adult levels by age 20; remains stable between ages 20 and 60; and declines steadily after age 60.” (Washington Post)
If your age is between 20 and 60 and you’re gaining weight it’s not your body’s fault!
Exercise and Calories Burned
For most of us it’s easier to increase the amount of riding and other exercise, which are fun, than to eat less, which isn’t fun.
The weight loss calculation that people – including exercise scientists – use is simple: If the total daily calories burned are more than the total calories consumed, then the individual will lose weight. Daily calories burned are the sum of calories burned at rest (basal metabolism or BMI), burned through activities of daily living (ADL) and through exercise. This is the calculation I’ve used personally and with clients. Most people trying to lose weight monitor the total number of calories they burn each day and number of calories they eat each day. There are apps you can use for this.
According to the weight loss calculation if you burn 500 calories on a two-hour bike ride it has the same effect as foregoing about a pint of ice cream.
However, in study after study people trying to lose weight didn’t lose as much weight as the weight loss calculation predicted.
Scientists wondered why and reviewed an interesting and influential 2012 study of hunter-gathers who regularly walked or jogged for hours. The study examined their caloric burn rate. Surprisingly the hunter-gathers burned about the same number of total daily calories as relatively sedentary Westerners. The active hunter-gatherers daily eating pattern was few calories while hunting all day and then eating at night and in the morning before hunting. While hunting without their bodies anticipated starvation as they stalked their food and the bodies dialed back the caloric burn rate.
The same phenomenon occurs in people with more normal eating patterns who are eating less. A 2021 macro study of 1,754 adults just reported in Science Direct found our bodies tend to automatically compensate for at least a quarter of the calories we expend during exercise. In other words for every 100 calories you think you’re burning while exercising, you’re actually burning only about 72 calories. The scientists called this energy compensation.
Taking into account energy compensation you’d actually have to ride 2:45 hours to burn off calories equivalent to not enjoying the pint of ice cream.
The energy compensation varied considerably with body composition. In general the more overweight a person is the fewer calories actually burned per hour of exercise. This may be due to differences in how much different individuals compensate and some people may be more may be more likely to accumulate body fat. Or the process might be more general. As people get fatter, their bodies might tend to compensate more for the calories burned during activity, making losing fat progressively more difficult. (New York Times)
The bottom line is that to lose weight you need to exercise more than you thought or also eat less.
Weight Training May Help
Here’s some good news. A new study found people who regularly do any kind of strength training exercise are significantly less likely to gain weight, whether they do aerobic activity or not.
Researchers looked at 12,000 mostly middle-aged people. At the start of the study none of them were obese measured by BMI. Knowing the problems with BMI the researchers also measured waist circumferences and body-fat percentages.
“Men and women who reported strengthening their muscles a few times a week, for a weekly total of one to two hours, were about 20 percent less likely to become obese over the years, based on B.M.I., and about 30 percent less likely, based on waist circumference or body-fat percentage.” These results are independent of diet, genetics and other factors. The study found a correlation between resistance training and gaining weight, but didn’t demonstrate any causality.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends doing 8 to 10 resistance exercises two or three times a week. This would take at least half an hour per session. I wrote this column on Anti-Aging – American College of Sports Medicine Recommendations.
Most of us love riding our bikes and if we have another half hour in a day we’ll go for a longer ride so meeting the ACSM recommendations may be challenging. I’ve created a simple minimum 15-minute program: Anti-Aging: 4 Essential Year-Round Home Resistance Exercises. You can do these exercises at home with no special equipment. I’ve also written these two related columns:
I’ve also written several columns on nutrition:
- Anti-Aging: 7 Nutrition Myths
- What’s the Best Food for Cycling
- Best Recovery Food and Drink
- Nutrition for Performance
I’m researching a new eBook on Cycling in Your 70s, 80s and Beyond. I’m in my 70th decade and very interested in this. Some of the above material is from my research; however, what’s in this column applies to all cyclists.
My eBook Healthy Nutrition Past 50 covers
- The key role of carbohydrates in providing the energy you need and many of the vitamins and minerals.
- The role of protein and nourishing protein choices.
- The important role of fat in your diet, and healthy choices to get that needed fat.
- The principal vitamins and minerals you need.
The 28-page Healthy Nutrition Past 50is $4.99.
Anti-Aging – 12 ways you can slow the aging process has a chapter devoted to resistance training. I explain how to do resistance training correctly and give you choices of 14 lower body exercises, 9 upper body exercises, and 7 core exercises. Coach Dan Kehlenbach demonstrates how to do each exercise without special equipment. I provide an annual plan to integrate resistance training with endurance riding and intensity workouts. The 106-page Anti-Aging – 12 ways you can slow the aging process is $14.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
you can easily out-eat your exercise…
Larry Best says
Unfortunate, but true.
What were the hunter gatherers consuming? Gels? Energy bars? Sports drinks? Carb loading before long hunts? As for BMI, forget that and strip down in front of a full length mirror.
Greg Przybyl says
I do that (strip down in front of a mirror) and my gut says, “I’m too sexy for this bike jersey”. 🙂
Chris Harvey says
I tore a quad (while cycling!) and recovery has been slow, steady, and often painful. A wise physio has provided great assistance, and happily (after 12 weeks) I see much evidence that her exercises have been crucial to recovery.
One of the great lessons learned is that I need to be much more vigilant in focusing on strength training for all of my body. I really appreciate the focus that your articles provide and as I build my repertoire, your wisdom and experience will prove to be crucial. Many thanks!
Greg Weaver says
John, I read and enjoy most of your articles. I’m surprised you still recommend foods that contain processed sugar or ingredients like high fructose corn syrup.
I did a sugar fast a few years ago and was surprised at the many benefits I experienced. Eliminating sugar from my diet has helped me tremendously in several ways.
If you haven’t looked into it recently, you may want to revisit the benefits of a reduced sugar diet.
Big Ring Bob says
I’m in my late 70’s. This year I have been averaging 1000 per month for the last 5 months. My body is recovering from a bad fall two years ago, and a bout with an auto-immune disease that followed. The auto-immune disease required a long term use of prednisone that effects metabolism. I started riding in 2009 after being off the bike since 1993. My weight had gone up from 180 lbs to 225 and my height has gone from 6′ to 5’10”. I am now back down to 194 with a goal of 190 by year-end. I have not changed my diet substantially, I have limited my intake of alcohol and I am trying to reduce my serving sizes. I try to minimize any processed foods. According to Garmin, I am burning about 40,000 calories a month with the exercise (calculated with my current weight, heart rate and power meter). Having been concerned with overtraining, I’ve tried to focus on low intensity riding for a good portion of the season.
This is producing results, but much slower than the simple calculation of (Calories burned – calories consumed) = loss.
William Wightman says
Assuming you are otherwise healthy or in the middle of the normal curve… you can get real results with a more modest aerobic effort (50-100 miles per week) if you go to a less than 5 grams carbohydrate (any source) per day and eat only one meal per day in a one hour window. Do this for 6-8 weeks. This is actually much harder to do than most training as it requires that you remove habitual harmful eating habits (day after day) and allow your body the time to change metabolically away from needing the pastas, bread, gels etc. I am embarking on this path (again) over the winter as riding slacks off. I think quitting carbs (your liver will produce what you need) must be as hard as quitting smoking because so many people react harshly when it is mentioned. The benefits (endurance, fast healing, short sleep needs, and most importantly, a razor sharp mind) are amazing when done properly and with persistence. To repeat, you must allow 6-8 weeks of stringent adherence before you judge the results. Drink lots of water. Has worked for me but really takes discipline.
Nat Watson says
If you were really in your 70th decade, you’d be 691 years old or so! Congratulations!!
Any amount of biological/medical “theories” cannot override basic laws of physics.
neil Mackillop says
Partial knowledge of 1– the possible diminished benefit of doing aerobic and strength training at the same time (ie in same gym session) and 2–the impact of any calorie/protein restriction within a day or so of either of them……means I dont really commit properly to any of them, except for riding 1-2 hours or more most days.
For example if I was largely sedentary (or too large!) I’d probably go low or zero calories for a couple of days per week and hope for a mortality benefit. As it it I am relying on the cycling for longevity and so able to look at any grandkids but probably not on track to be able to lift them!
Be great to have an article that steers a pragmatic path between these multiple aims.
btw Stretching seems to be the one area where there is uncertain/controversial benefit even before we consider interactions.