Take the Stairs: The Not-So-Secret Secret to Weight Loss

Photo by Lindsay Henwood on Unsplash

Forget those 30-day-weight-loss challenges and “super-secret” dieting tricks from magazines. Here’s what you can do to actually lose weight, no matter what age you are.

Have you ever tried one of the 30-day-weight-loss diets that one can find in those gossip magazines? Let me guess: It didn’t work?

I want to explain to you the problem of why our population grows more and more obese because if you understand the problem in the first place then you don’t need to fall for the miracle cures and other lies anymore.

My name is Arthur and next to being a bit of a health and fitness nut who is currently training for his first Ironman, I am a doctor with a thing for educating others. Why? Because our job gets a lot easier when people realize that they are the ones responsible for their own health and well-being and… you know… I’m a doctor… I like to help people.

There’s going to be all sorts of sciency stuff like the base metabolic rate (BMR) or the Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) or the metabolic slowdown but don’t let that scare you. I promise I’ll make it easy to understand.

When you’re done reading this article I promise you the next time you read one of those magazines about “How I lost 30 pounds in 30 days by eating only kale”, you will silently smile to yourself and skip to the next page.

Here’s how to lose weight the right way and keep it down for good, no matter if you are 20, 40, 50 or even 70 years old.

Ready? Let’s get to it.

So here’s the problem:

We’re getting fatter and fatter.

You don’t need to be an expert on the field to notice that. Looking back over a course of 25 years a study has shown that the amount of obese people has doubled since 1980. That’s not very long ago, is it?

While it’s evident that this has to do mostly with increased energy intake due to “[…]the increased availability, accessibility, and affordability of energy-dense foods, along with intense marketing of such foods”, there’s also another factor in why we’re gaining more and more weight.

Even though very difficult to show in studies, it’s rather obvious that we burned more calories back in the 50s than we do now. It’s difficult to show because calorie counting wasn’t as widely used back then as it is nowadays.

Nevertheless, if we think back it was common for a woman to stay at home and work as a housewife then.

Let’s take a look at that: She had to walk to the grocery store and carry home the food. She had to clean the house with a vacuum cleaner that weighed about 25 pounds. She had to do the dishes by hand.

All of that requires way more activity than driving to the store, cleaning with a vacuum that’s a fraction of the weight and putting the dishes into the dishwasher.

It’s no wonder that according to the National Food Survey of 1952, women on average consumed nearly 2,500 calories a day and still stayed a lot slimmer than today.

And of course, for men it’s just the same. Men also had jobs that were more demanding of their bodies than is needed in the present times. Just think about how farm work used to be compared to what it is nowadays.

So the average caloric expenditure during the day was a lot higher than in the present times.

And it continues to drop.

Ford’s “Model T” was introduced to a wider public after it started being mass-produced in 1914. That means about a hundred years ago we were just starting to drive with cars. They weren’t very widely spread back then. We usually walked or rode our horses or bikes when we wanted to get somewhere.

That’s a lot more calories we burn compared to getting on one of these electric scooters that people find so practical nowadays.

Of course, they are practical. Everything that removes work we deem as practical. But is it smart?

Remember the movie Wall-E?

I remember watching it a few years back and loved the dystopian scene when the future humans were portrayed as hovering on those electric transporters with a screen in front of their eyes, all of them obese. I loved it because that’s precisely where we’re heading in my opinion.

We used to walk to the store. Now we step on those e-scooters and check our phones while we drive there. That’s not very far from hovering, is it? We have to steer ourselves and hold up the screen but except that…

You know what? Let’s just get it delivered to the front door. That’s even more convenient.

Excerpt from the movie “Wall-E” on Youtube

Don’t think that that’s where we’re headed?

The 2008 Health Survey for England showed that, on average, Britons were sedentary for six or more hours every day, and almost half of that time was spent watching television.

Now we just need one of those hover-thingies.

Want to know the real secret to weight loss?

There isn’t one.

All those magazines and those flashy headlines are just that. Flashy headlines. There’s one thing that we have to understand when it comes to weight loss and all else will come clear:

Calories in, calories out.

That’s pretty much it.

In short: The body gains weight when it’s given more calories than it needs and the body loses weight when it’s given less.

Think of it that way:

You have a bucket with a hole in the bottom. You start to fill this bucket and water starts to drain out through the hole. At some point, you have a balance between the water flowing in at the top and draining out at the bottom. That’s the same as eating the precise amount of calories you need per day. If we increase the amount of water pouring in from the top, the water level will rise. If we reduce it, it will decline.

If we pour in less water into our fictional bucket, our body will generate that “water” itself and burn our reserves in the form of fat and muscle.

Easy, isn’t it?

So what about low carb, intermittent fast, vegan, paleo, and all those other concepts? Are you saying they don’t work?

Nope, that’s not what I am saying.

I am a big fan of intermittent fasting myself, for example (more on that maybe another day because for now this would go beyond the scope of this article) but all these diets will not help you if you digest more calories than you need.

Once again let me make clear: I am not saying that they don’t work. I am saying they are not significantly better.

In my opinion, most people that get good results from these dietary changes get it from eating more mindful and therefore eating less. That doesn’t mean that there are no other health benefits and reasons why things like intermittent fasting work and help with weight loss but the biggest part of it probably is simply due to the fact that people eat less.

If I only eat during 6 hours of the day but then throw in two jugs of Nutella during those 6 hours — and yes, people are doing that, just google “Nutella challenge” if you don’t believe me — then I won’t lose very much weight, will I?

There are two big problems with being on a diet. First of all:

If you consider yourself “on a diet” then that means at some point you will be “off that diet” again.

If our goal is to lose weight in 30 days it just means that we’ll try to drastically eat a lot less for a while and go back to what we ate before.

If you think that this will help you in maintaining your weight over the long-term then you are fooling yourself.

We don’t have to completely restrict ourselves to hardly any eating at all. We just have to do it in a smart way and reduce a little bit over a longer period. It’s healthier, it’s less demanding of us and it’s way more sustainable.

If you want to go somewhere with your car, you’re not going full throttle only to slam the breaks after a mile, just to go full throttle after the next one again, do you?

We don’t need to be trying to do something super smart for a month and then go back to being stupid. We just need to try to be a little bit smarter in general. It’s not much after all:

“[…] the 10- to 12-pound increase in median weight we observe in the past two decades requires a net caloric imbalance of about 100 to 150 calories per day. These calorie numbers are strikingly small. One hundred and fifty calories per day is [sic] three Oreo cookies or one can of Pepsi. It is about a mile and a half of walking” — David Cutler

And there’s another big reason why 30-day-challenges won’t work and can actually work against your goal of losing weight:

Remember that BMR-thing from the introduction?

The base metabolic rate, also known as resting metabolic rate or basal energy expenditure is the number of calories you burn to keep your bodily functions going.

Basically, if you wake up in the morning, stay in the bed, don’t move or do anything, then the number of calories you burn is your BMR.

So far so good, that wasn’t too hard, was it?

Let’s take this a step further:

When you are alive — and chances are high that you are if you’re reading this — then your body is burning calories. Your digestive system, your breathing, the muscles in your body. All of that is constantly burning calories.

That also means that the more “body” you have, the more calories you burn.

A man who is two meters tall will burn more energy than the 1.50m woman because he is just “more body” that needs energy.

So in order to lose weight, we have to gain weight.

Wait, what?

Sounds weird, doesn’t it?

Let me explain what I mean:

No, I am not suggesting to eat more and put on fat to lose fat. The biggest driver of the BMR is your muscle mass. That means the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you will burn doing nothing.

That is also the reason people get good results from adding strength training for weight loss compared to just doing cardio. Their muscle mass increases, therefore their BMR rises and they burn more calories doing nothing.

This gets more important the older you get. Above the age of 40 or 50 the body’s metabolism has changed quite a bit to when we were younger. This leads to a reduction in muscle mass and is also the reason why many people gain weight around that age. Some earlier, some later.

Basically the older you get, the more important strength training gets.

While chances are that you won’t lose *weight* when you do strength training you will probably lose *fat*. After all, that’s what we want, isn’t it?

The current stance of medicine on the topic of weight loss is, that it’s probably best to do both in order to lose weight.

That’s also the reason why programs like HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and Crossfit have become so popular in recent years. They combine the effect of aerobic training (like running for example) with anaerobic training and strength training.

And now that we got this out of the way, let’s get to the important part and why we needed to understand this concept.

So now that we know the two facts that the body loses weight by burning fat and muscle if it’s given less energy than it needs and we know that muscle mass is the biggest driver of the BMR it gets clear why 30-day-challenges are not helping in losing weight *and keeping it there*.

Yes, you will lose weight during these challenges. But something else is going to happen as well: If you only eat less and do not work out and train your muscles, then your body will start “eating up” your muscle mass.

So after these 30 days you are left with less weight. But what you are also left with is less lean muscle mass. That means your BMR is reduced and you will have it even more difficult to hold your weight low after you stopped with the diet because you will burn less energy when you are doing nothing. Your baserate drops and to keep the weight you need to eat even less than before those 30 days. Ever heard of the yo-yo effect? People often become more obese a short while after they stopped dieting. That’s precisely the reason for that.

There’s also another factor called the metabolic slowdown. Basically that’s what happens when over a period of time your intake is way-lower than what you would require.

In simple terms, our body does not get enough energy over a period of time. Completely scared that starvation is near, it will start to reduce our energy expenditure and lower our BMR. That’s what’s called the metabolic slowdown.

See the problem with those super-secret-30-day-miracle-weight-loss programs now?

While this won’t be relevant for everyone let me introduce you to EPOC commonly referred to as the afterburn effect. If you’re not into training you can happily skip this part but I think it can be quite helpful for everyone to understand this concept as well. As I said, the more we understand the underlying theory, the more we understand how weight loss actually works.

Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption is a fancy word for: the higher the intensity of your training was, the more calories you will burn afterward.

Our body needs oxygen for generating energy. I won’t go into detail about how cells generate ATP and how the citric acid cycle works because then you would probably hate me, close this article or die of boredom.

Let me sum it up that way: Our cells generate energy with the help of oxygen. If there’s no oxygen, they can — for a while — generate energy through a different pathway that’s less efficient. If our training intensity increases so does our need for oxygen. Just notice how you start to breathe more when you are physically active. That’s why.

If at some point not enough oxygen is reaching our muscle cells, then they switch to that different pathway of generating energy. When they do lactic acid is produced as a byproduct of this process.

Notice how your legs start to burn when you’re running up the stairs real fast? That’s lactic acid.

So when we are done exercising and have gone through a prolonged phase of anaerobic (= without oxygen) energy creation you are basically left with what’s commonly referred to as oxygen-debt.

This oxygen debt will — through different mechanisms — cause your body to burn more calories even after you stopped training. This can be as long as 38 hours afterward.

So let’s take a break here and sum up what we’ve learned so far:

  • If we give our body more energy (calories) than it needs it will start to put on weight. Calories in, calories out.
  • The increase in calory-intake is the main cause of our society getting fatter, while technology plays a role in decreasing our output.
  • Lean muscle mass is the biggest driver in BMR (base metabolic rate). If we increase our muscle mass, we increase the number of calories we burn when we are resting.
  • Radical weight-loss that is often called “miracle” or “super-secret” is working only for a short time. While we’re losing weight in the process, we are also losing muscle mass, causing our BMR to drop and therefore making it even harder to keep a lower weight after the program is over.
  • In order to lose weight the right way, we need to adapt our lifestyle and change to a *sustainable* reduction in calories. Studies have shown that it doesn’t even take that much.
  • EPOC can help us burn more calories after the exercise has ended.

Alrighty, my friends, now that we understand the theory of the whys, let’s get to the point you’ve been waiting for:

Firstly I want to go over how you can reduce your intake.

Unfortunately, simply saying “eat less” will not be helpful, will it? Here are some ideas you can use:

  • Start cooking your meals yourself. According to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research, people who frequently cook meals at home eat healthier and consume fewer calories than those who cook less.
  • Drink water or tea, ditch the sodas. Calory uptake through beverages is associated with being overweight (who would have thought?). It’s a very easy way to reduce your calory intake.
  • Stop watching TV while you eat. Eating in front of the TV increases the number of calories we eat.
  • Cook a little more dinner than you want to eat. (No studies, personal trick) While that might sound counterproductive at first it will do two things: You will have some home-cooked food left over to take to work the following day and it will also reduce the urge to eat everything up when you’re already full because you don’t want to throw your food out. If you don’t want to take it to work just put it in the freezer and eat it another day.
  • While that’s probably overkill for most people, counting your calory intake can help. Apps like MyFitnessPal come to mind. As I said, that’s probably not for everybody but it’s actually less work than one would think, so give it a try, if you’re interested.

Now to the other part of the equation: How to burn more calories.

I could tell you to start hitting the gym or start working out more but we’ve already seen that not everybody *has* to do this in order to lose weight. Don’t get me wrong: Yes, it would be better for us if we worked out more. Yes, enrolling in the gym and going there regularly would be good for pretty much everybody. But I wanted to put an emphasis on how much of a difference over the long-term it makes to increase our energy expenditure in our everyday lives by making small chances readily available.

  • Take. The. Stairs. We have seen how little of a difference over time it truly takes. It’s fast, it’s efficient and unless you aren’t working in a skyscraper it’s often faster than waiting. It’s a tiny bit of strength training for your legs each day, increasing BMR and preventing your body to reduce your leg’s muscles because they are not needed.
  • Ditch the electric scooters even if they are convenient and walk instead. Let’s not become those Wall-E-people, shall we? Walking is a great way to increase your burned calories. I guess I don’t need to tell anyone that it’s having numerous health benefits. Once again: You need your muscles. Getting on an e-scooter that drives you around will not show your body that these muscles are needed.
  • Ride your bike to work. If the distance allows it, this can be extremely helpful. Not only will you increase your calories burned, but you will also reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases as well as cancer.
  • Have a sedentary job? Try a standing desk and switch from time to time. By standing instead of sitting for 6h/day a 65kg person burns around 54kcal more per day. Remember that we just need around 150kcal less per day?
  • Challenge yourself to an EPOC race every day. Whenever you come home from work and take the stairs at home (remember?) challenge yourself. Try to get up as fast as you can. Try to really get into the oxygen-debt. When you’re home it doesn’t matter if your sweating or breathing like you just ran away from death itself. (You can do this on the way to work as well if you want but… you know… meh). This will make your body burn some excess calories for a while.
  • Get a fitness-tracker. While a study has shown that fitness-trackers aren’t linked to long-term weight loss, this is mostly due to the fact that they aren’t actually reducing the calories you burn just by wearing them. You don’t need to be Sherlock to find out that a watch on your arm won’t help you lose weight if you keep sitting on the sofa. What they can do though, is motivate you to challenge yourself. A study finds that fitness trackers “[…]may have the potential to increase activity levels through self-monitoring and goal setting in the short term”.

So that is it. No miracle cures, no special secret.

Weight loss doesn’t have to be this massive final enemy. We sometimes just make things way more complicated than it seems.

Small changes over the long-term will make you live a healthier life.

And yes, I’ll say it again: If you also decide to work out more, you’ll see the benefit even more. Just make sure to consult your doctor before you make any radical changes. Everybody is different and I don’t know your circumstances.

Keep in mind that it’s the little things. Remember how we all were more active in the 50s because our jobs were more demanding of our bodies? Don’t fall for the trap of thinking every technological convenience is worth using. It might turn out to bring you net negativity for your health and happiness.

Remember the importance of doing the little things like taking the stairs so you use your muscles more and increase your BMR. If we don’t take the stairs and don’t use our leg muscles, our bodies think we don’t need them and start to rob us of them. BMR is the key.

Remember that eating more healthily will reduce your calory intake and keep our golden rule of Calories in, calories out in mind.

I know that change can be hard sometimes. And it is ok if we screw up now and then. But the good thing about it is:

We’re not trying to accomplish a 30-day-challenge, where one bad day means we failed. We are trying to live a healthier life where one bad day means that tomorrow we can try again.

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