When I was a personal trainer, I heard that question from my clients way too often.
Including from a 30 year old, overworked farm manager that for the sake of this story we will call Frank.
Frank's job was extremely physical, generally 12 hours a day and yet for the last few years his belly kept getting bigger!
He hated the gym, but he hated having a gut more so he rocked up 3 nights a week and allowed me to punish him further physically to try and burn off that excess fat.
It was a complete mystery to him as to why he was getting fatter and I confess that at the time, it was a mystery to me too.
Energy in versus energy out was how we stay slim right? If you create an energy deficit between in and out, you have to lose weight. The thing is, Frank’s energy out was over the top. During calving season with over 700 cows it was like running marathons back to back carrying a refrigerator. So how could this man possibly gain weight?
Frank was a living example of why the simple ‘energy in versus energy out’ formula fails. We are not robots - weight gain and weight loss are very human issues. So in order to figure out what was happening to Frank we needed to add some specific human elements to that equation.
I’ll start with the obvious, Frank was ‘farm fit’. While a normal day at work for him would destroy most people, his body had adapted to the point that his energy expenditure was not as high as expected. Hard physical labour was quite manageable physiologically speaking and that meant Frank was seriously overestimating his energy output.
That overestimation spawned a whole bunch of weight gaining habits like overeating, believing he could eat whatever he wanted and eating whenever he could to ‘keep up his energy’ – his words not mine.
Then we had to consider the internal effects of his physically demanding job such as increased appetite, inflammation & fluid retention (he was plagued by injuries because he didn't get enough recovery time), and his work was really stressful which produced a chemical cocktail that demanded sugar and made weight loss difficult.
That was all compounded by a lack of sleep because of his long days and so much of our weight loss happens when we sleep.
This all made the simple energy in versus energy out formula slightly more complex and it would be the same for anyone in a physical role, nurse, builder, even some personal trainers.
Once I realised what was going on, I radically changed how I trained Frank and we started doing gentle stretching. He was obviously confused so I wrote up what I have discovered on a white board after our first 'gentle' session.
'The energy in versus energy out formula is incomplete,' I told Frank, who nodded vigorously in agreement and then rubbed his belly. 'I am going to draw up what the formula SHOULD look like:
Energy out (- physical adaptation - sleep quality & duration – inflammation & fluid retention – stress levels) versus energy in (x food quality & nutritional value x timing of food) = weight loss or gain.
This complex, lengthy formula is a far more accurate representation of what effects energy in and out and why throwing more energy out at the equation is not the answer. In fact it can make things a lot worse.
After two months of doing less activity, delegating the more physical jobs at work and cleaning up his diet, Frank had lost 12kgs, he had his 6-pack back and had more energy than ever before. So doing less is what made Frank lose weight.
We gladly parted ways at that point and I’ll never forget his final words.
‘Thanks Mick, but what was that equation thing you wrote on the board. I had no f%^&ing clue what you were talking about.’ .