Can high intensity exercise lead to weight gain?

A new study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise has challenged the conventional wisdom that high-intensity exercise is an effective means of burning calories and facilitating weight loss. The study, led by Takashi Matsui, PhD from the Institute of Health and Sport Sciences at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, found that a single session of high-intensity exercise can lead to weight gain, despite no changes in food intake.

This counterintuitive conclusion suggests that pushing oneself too hard during exercise may actually have the opposite effect of what is typically expected. High-intensity exercise can disrupt the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, known as the circadian rhythm, and trigger a surge in cortisol levels, the stress hormone. Elevated cortisol not only amplifies appetite but also saps motivation for further physical activity, leading to increased calorie consumption and ultimately weight gain.

According to Dr Jagadish J Hiremath, high-intensity exercise puts the body’s metabolism through a series of peaks and valleys. While it initially fuels the metabolic furnace, accelerating calorie expenditure, the surge in cortisol that accompanies high-intensity exercise can also trigger intense cravings for high-calorie, unhealthy foods. Succumbing to these cravings can negate the calorie deficit achieved through exercise, potentially leading to weight gain.

Dr Hiremath emphasizes that not all high-intensity workouts are created equal, and those that are excessively long, frequent, or intense can be detrimental to weight management goals. Overtraining can disrupt hormonal balance, leading to elevated stress levels, increased appetite, and a heightened risk of weight gain.

To optimize high-intensity workouts for sustainable weight management, Dr Hiremath suggests incorporating variety, prioritizing nutrition, diversifying one’s routine, and listening to one’s body. Intersperse high-intensity workouts with lower-intensity activities, focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods, avoid monotony by incorporating a variety of exercises, and pay close attention to one’s body’s signals. By adopting a balanced and strategic approach, one can potentially avoid the counterproductive effects of high-intensity exercise on weight management.

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