The Exercise Paradox: Why Running Won’t Make You Lose Weight

Great.  Another depressing study that tells me running isn’t doing what I think it’s doing.

Running burns a ton of calories, right?  So if you run just a little more, you’ll lose weight, right?

Not necessarily.

In the February 2017 issue of Scientific American, researchers glumly announced that it really doesn’t matter how much exercise you do.  Human metabolism is fixed and exercise is a poor tool for weight loss.

Let me say that again:  your metabolism is fixed and running more won’t make you lose more weight.

The scientists measured the calorie burn of the highly active hunter-gatherer Hadza tribe in rural Tanzania who hunt all day long in hopes of killing their food, only to discover that they burn roughly the same amount of calories as their sedentary Western counterparts.

Just reading that seems ridiculous.  How in the world can an active person burn the same amount of calories as a couch potato?

Well, moderately active people do burn more than those glued to the desk and the couch, but bumping your mileage up from moderate to high in the name of losing weight won’t provide the same returns it once did when you first started.


In a study of over 300 Westerners, the researchers discovered that “energy expenditure plateaued at higher activity levels: people with the most intensely active daily lives burned the same number of calories each day as those with moderately active lives. The same phenomenon keeping Hadza energy expenditure in line with that of other populations was evident among individuals in the study.”

Lovely.  I’m burning the same amount of calories sitting at my desk typing this as the Hadza woman gathering wild berries and digging tubers out of the hard ground with a stick.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure how it works, but they theorize that as your body becomes fitter and healthier, it spends less time “housekeeping,”  like rebuilding damaged cells or fighting inflammation.

In other words, your body becomes more efficient and will run on less.

But wait.  If you go out on a 20 mile run, the average person is burning about 2000 calories, depending on weight. Therefore, she should be able to eat 2000 additional calories worth of food to maintain her weight.  It’s a simple equation, isn’t it?

Ah, just like just about everything in the human body, it isn’t that simple.

What happens when the Hadza tribesmen don’t catch the giraffe after spending the entire day hunting?  That’s a big, expensive caloric gamble that they sometimes lose.  Why don’t they starve?

The answer is fat.  Even the leanest humans, like the Hadza, carry about twice as much fat as other primates.  We are built to store fat to feed our big brains when we don’t catch the giraffe.

This is not really news, of course.  Everyone’s heard the phrases “abs are made in the kitchen” and “you can’t outrun a bad diet.”  We all know it’s a lot easier to eat 100 calories of peanut butter in one swallow than it is to burn it off running a mile.

I know this is true first hand because I ran more miles than ever last year and still gained weight!

The fact that our metabolism is fixed is a little disheartening, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run or even that you shouldn’t run a lot.  If my only reason to run were that it kept my weight in check, I’d run a whole lot less, but that’s only a small part of why I run at this point.

The way I’m choosing to look at this is that it means that nutrition matters more than how much you run.  Exercise is still essential, but the returns from a metabolic standpoint plateau and may even diminish as the miles pile up.

Eating whole, nutritious foods that satisfy without being too calorically dense is the key to fueling your body with exactly what it needs, without allowing it to store the excess as fat.

Forcing your body to work harder to get the nutrients out of your food could help a bit too.  That means salads instead of smoothies and nuts instead of nut butters.  The more chopping, blending, and processing that you do to your food outside of your body, the easier it is for your body digest and use (good things!) but also store as fat (bleh).

The fact is that our brains were developed to obsessively search for food and our bodies were designed to greedily hoard fat no matter what the caloric cost.

But the Scientific American piece did end on an upbeat note.  It mentioned another evolutionary development that is essential to human survival:  cooperation.

Other apes do not share food, but we do.  The Hadza men work together as a group to hunt the giraffe, but if they are not successful, they come back to their camp to share in the food that the women have gathered.

Because they share in the hunting, the gathering, and the food, they do not starve.

So run together.

Eat together.

(Just not too much.)




Lime Mango Tart

Life is too short to skip dessert.

I adore making beautiful cakes and pies, but they generally are not the healthiest way to finish off a meal.  Sure, having a slice of cake is wonderful for a celebration, but when there’s half a cake left after the party’s over, it’s just too easy to eat cake every single day until it’s gone.

Or twice a day.

Or for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

For Easter this year, I wanted to make something gorgeous and impressive, but without the flour, sugar, and tons of oil.

Of course, it had to be delicious too.

So I chose a mango tart with an almond crust with a lime coconut filling.

And yes, I was singing “you put the lime in da coconut and drink it all up” pretty much the whole time.

The mango rose is easier than it looks.  You use a vegetable peeler to peel the mango skin, then slice off the two halves around the flat seed.  Then you cut into thin slices.

Using the longest slices first, begin placing them around the filled pie, starting from the outside edge.  Continue around in a circular pattern until you get to the center.  Easy peasy!

I used a tart pan with a removable bottom so that the shell could stand on its own without a pie dish, but if you don’t have one, you can just use a regular pie pan.

Be warned that while this recipe is super easy, it does require some chilling, so it’s easier to make this the day before you need it, or at least several hours in advance.

This is a recipe that I would have been happy to have as leftovers.  Even for breakfast!

But wouldn’t you know it?   It was so good, there weren’t any!

Lime Mango Tart
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    For the tart shell:
  • 2 cups almond flour
  • 1 tablespoon melted coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground flax seed
  • For the filling:
  • 1 can coconut cream or full fat coconut milk
  • 2-3 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup raw cashews (optional, but delicious)
  • 1/4 cup lime juice (or more to taste)
  • 1/4 cup almond milk
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 3-4 ripe mangos


  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Add all tart shell ingredients to a food processor and pulse until you get coarse crumbs that clump together when squeezed in your hand.
  2. Press dough into a greased 11" tart pan with a removable bottom or pie pan. Make sure dough is even all around and up the sides.
  3. Bake until lightly golden and cookie-like, about 15 minutes.
  4. Cool completely, at least an hour.
  5. To prepare the filling, place coconut cream, maple syrup, vanilla, and cashews in a high speed blender and blend until smooth. (If you do not have a high speed blender, you'll want to boil the cashews in just enough water to cover them for ten minutes, drain the water, then add to the blender.)
  6. Pour the mixture into a saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently.
  7. Meanwhile, mix almond milk and cornstarch in a container until dissolved.
  8. Once at a simmer, add lime juice, then slowly pour in cornstarch mix.
  9. Stir until thickened.
  10. Pour into cooled tart shell and refrigerate one hour.
  11. Meanwhile, slice your mangos. Peel with a vegetable peeler and slice into two halves around the flat seed. Then slice longways into thin strips.
  12. Arrange sliced mangos in a rose pattern by using the longest slices first along the outside of the tart, working in a circular pattern until you reach the center.
  13. Keep at room temperature or refrigerate until ready to serve.


*inspired by and


“So, What Are You Training For?” and Other One-Liners

Most runners skew heavily on the introverted side.  After all, we spend a lot of time logging miles on our own.

And most of us like it that way.

When we do get together with other also-introverted runners at the track or at a race, there can be a bit of the small-talk awkwardness that invariably begins with the classic question: “So, what are you training for?”

It’s the easy and obvious question, much like the standard, “so, what do you do?” at the party where you don’t know anyone.  Or, for the single runners, the pick-up line at the bar.

It’s easy because it works.  Most runners are training for something, so it’s a non-threatening, causal way to break the ice during 200m jog rests with a new group.

It’s also a quick way of sizing someone up.  Wow, that guy’s training for the 100 Mile Certain Death Race?!  He must be insane! 

Or, she’s training for an Olympic triathlon?  And I thought just running was hard!

Or, didn’t he just finish a marathon last week?  He’s doing another one so soon?

Right now, I’m not training for anything specific, so answering that question is not as fun as it is when I have a set, defined goal.  Usually, I mumble a response like, “oh, I’m not really training for anything right now.  Just doing shorter stuff for the spring.  You know, a few local 5ks and 10ks.”

My questioner typically gives me the side eye and nods, “that’s cool.”

Which definitely does not feel so cool.

Because just like the “so, what do you do” question, the “so, what are you training for” query gives you a quick, but limited view into what kind of person you are.  Marathoners train for marathons, trail runners train for trail races, ultra runners train for ultras.

I don’t love racing 5ks.  (There. I said it.) They are painful in a different way than the marathon and I have a hard time staying in the red zone of burning pain for so long.

So I don’t really act all bubbly and positive when I explain that I’m training for something I’m not too fond of.  I’m doing it to become a better marathoner, but it’s not like I’m gushing with joy when I tell people I’m training for the Everyone’s a Special Snowflake Community 5K.

But just as your job does not define you, neither does your goal race.  Sure, it does dictate how we spend a big chunk of our time, but it’s not everything.

Perhaps a better ice-breaker would be, “so what do you like to do for fun outside of running?” or, “what are you passionate about?”

You get a very different and infinitely more interesting response that way.  People are taken back a bit since it’s out of the ordinary, but then they light up and let you peek inside the rest of their world.

Yet at the same time, the goal does become a part of who you are and helps you lace up your shoes everyday.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss that.

This weekend many of my running friends are in Boston right now ahead of the iconic marathon on Monday, posing for pictures at the Expo with Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan and trying not to walk too much up and down Boylston Street.

Over the past several months or for even over a year, when anyone asked one of them, “so, what are you training for?” you know they smiled happily and said a single word:  Boston.

But how do you answer the question on Tuesday?

That’s easy!  You just sign up for the next one…




In Defense of Self Defense

I run alone a lot.  Most of the time, in fact.  Being alone with my thoughts or fun music or a good podcast is one of the things that I most cherish about running.  I need that space and time to myself.

But unfortunately, there are people in the world that could see that as an opportunity to strike.  A woman alone, lost in thought in the woods or an empty park seems like an easy target to victimize.

Nevermind that the drive to the trail is far more dangerous that running it alone, the fear that evil is hiding out waiting to pounce keeps many runners, more often women, from even attempting a solo run.

(There are no great statistics of how many runners get assaulted every year, but the risk of getting attacked by a stranger in general is very low.)

When the rare attack does occur, women are bombarded with all sorts of advice on modifying our behavior to keep ourselves safe:  never run alone, always carry pepper spray, take a self-defense class.

We need to do something, right?

This advice is well meant, despite the fact the only behavior that needs modifying is the perpetrators’, not their targets.  Which is just maddening.

I will not give up running alone and I will not carry pepper spray in my hand every day.

But taking a self-defense class seemed like a great idea.

Especially after the recent attack on the Seattle runner who successfully fought back with techniques she had learned in a self-defense class.

So when a group of runners in my area organized a class, I signed up.

I first want to make it clear that self-defense is a last resort tactic.  I’m not going to use my newly-acquired techniques to fight off a person who stole my parking spot or gouge out the eyes of a redneck that catcalls as I run by.

These are skills to be done when you have no other choice.

Avoiding the altercation is the best defense.  But by avoiding, I do not mean avoid running alone all together.  Any time you are alone doing any activity–getting in an elevator, walking to your car at night after work, looking for your keys to unlock your front door–your guard is let down and you could be a potential target.

So to those who repeat the mantra “be aware of your surroundings” as the end-all-be-all response, remember that there will be constant moments of vulnerability.  Being aware of your surroundings is wise and great in theory, but we also cannot live every second of our lives hyper-vigilant of a tiny, but scary risk.

Lessons to remember!

Our class was taught by Richard Howell, an 8th-degree black belt instructor at Double Edge Defense.  Richard made it clear that in a three-hour class, we would not suddenly become master Jedi fighters, able to withstand any attack in any situation, but we would be armed with some simple tools that could potentially save our lives, no matter how big our attacker was.

I’m not going to go into all the details of what we learned because you truly need to practice and learn from an expert in person.

But there are a few concepts that really made an impression on me.

Richard showed us how when humans are attacked at certain vulnerable spots, we react not with brain power, but with a spinal reflex.  Just like your hand will instinctively drop a burning-hot pot handle, you will also involuntarily move your hands to your injured eyes, throat, or groin to protect yourself.

Being able to predict where your attacker’s hands will move when injured could allow you enough precious seconds to escape.

Another key point is using your bodyweight to your advantage.  As a small woman, my attacker could potentially weigh three times as I do.  How in the world could I escape that?

Well, not many people can stay upright when hit with a 115 pound wrecking ball, no matter how big they are.  The trick is you have to be close enough to the person to use your body as leverage and not just your arms.

After his hands react to his injured eyes, I have an opportunity to use my weight to push him off his heels to the floor and escape
And down he goes!

Shortly after I took this class I mentioned how empowered I felt afterwards, being armed with a few simple tricks that I could use to defend myself if necessary.  I was surprised to get some pushback from some normally very supportive men who cautioned me about overconfidence.

Taking one class does not make me a master of martial arts, they warned, or prepared to win any altercation with any assailant.  Practicing in the safety of a classroom atmosphere does not prepare you for the unpredictability of the real world.

They are absolutely right.  These techniques need to be practiced regularly to become automatic.

And there are no guarantees.  If someone high on drugs ambushes me with a gun and has no problem taking my life for the fun of it, there’s probably not a whole lot I can do.

But I disagree with the overconfidence part.  There is no way that just because I know a good way to hit someone in the groin that I suddenly feel like Superwoman.  I’m still going to ignore and  run away from the catcallers and I’m still going to take a proactive look in the backseat of my car at night before getting in.

The confidence that I have gained will help me stand taller and project a message that I am not an easy target.

I hope to never, ever use a single technique that we learned that night.

But I know I could if I had to.