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How to Exercise on a Keto Diet

|How to Exercise on a Keto Diet

Following several requests from my readers, I will be sharing my thoughts on exercise and nutrition that is specific to those of who stay physically active and follow a keto diet. In this post, I'll try to cover the basic facts and myths about training on a ketogenic diet.

This post will not cover details of exercise nutrition (e.g. whether to eat carbs before or after exercise which is not as straightforward as you may think), essential supplements, specific types of training or my personal exercise routine. These topics are covered in this post: Keto Diet Nutrition & Exercise: Carbs - and many more will follow in my future posts. So let's start with some basics of training on a keto diet.

The "Exercise More and Eat Less" Dogma

When you ask people what is the purpose of exercise, the most common answers are:

  • to lose weight (body fat)
  • to get fit and stay healthy
  • to look and feel good
  • to build muscles and strength

When your goal is fat loss, the most common mistake is to go on a calorie restricted diet and add more exercise, usually prolonged cardio, in an effort to lose weight. When this approach fails, most people simply decrease their calorie intake and take on even more exercise. By doing so, most become physically and mentally exhausted with no real weight loss. The more they stick to this approach, the more like they will overexercise and/ or overeat, putting an increasing amount of stress on their body. The side effects of that are accelerating the ageing process of their cells and increasing the level of chronic inflammation. This approach is simply not sustainable and can harm your body.

Years before I started following a low-carb approach, I used to spend hours exercising every week. In fact, I used to go to gym almost every day for an hour or more, usually doing cardio. I loved the euphoric post-workout feeling and I was sure that if I stay focused, I'll reach my goals. I was already quite lean but I couldn't lose the last 5 pounds. Considering how much I used to exercise, I couldn't understand why the scales weren't moving. With my seemingly "healthy" approach (high-carb and low-fat), I was exhausted and felt hungry most of the time. I was frustrated. Back then I didn't have any thyroid issues but I'm absolutely sure that apart from other factors, my high-carb low-fat dieting, low-calorie intake and overexercising played a role in developing Hashimoto's (an autoimmune thyroid disease) a few years later.

I bet many of you have a similar experience...

So, Do Calories Count or Not?

When you eat nutritious whole foods low in carbs, moderate in protein and high in fat, you'll naturally eat less. I know this is the part when low-carb diets often get misunderstood and confused. Calories do count - although not quite the same way - even on a low-carb diet. There may be a few lucky people who can eat twice as many calories as their maintenance level but just like most of you, I'm definitely not one of them.

The main reason why most people lose weight on a keto diet is simple: you will naturally eat less because low-carb diets have appetite-suppressing effects. Although this study suggests that low-carb diets have a metabolic advantage, the appetite-suppressing effect is by far the most significant factor. Also, it's not accurate to say that high levels of ketones will guarantee fat loss. I haven't seen a study that would prove such claim. In fact, you don't even need to be in ketosis to lose body fat. High levels of ketones are desirable for therapeutic purposes rather than fat loss.

To help you find your ideal macronutrient intake, we developed a free online keto calculator, KetoDiet Buddy. Although most of you won't need to count calories on a keto diet, it may help you get a better idea of your macronutrients, especially protein intake.

Benefits of Exercise

One of the most common questions is whether you need to exercise to lose weight. There is no definite answer and here is why: Strictly speaking, you don't need to do any exercise to lose weight on a keto diet, however, there are several reasons why you should do moderate exercise.

Health benefits

  • Improved bone mineral density. This study and several other studies show that resistance training improves bone mineral density in obese postmenopausal women.
  • Improved immunity. This article explains some of the reasons why exercise may help you boost your immune system. Keep in mind that overexercising will have the opposite effect.
  • Improving diabetes by increasing insulin sensitivity. This review of studies shows that high-intensity intermittent exercise (HIIT) increases insulin sensitivity by up to 58%, especially in patients with type 2 diabetes. The same source shows that moderate aerobic exercise lowers blood sugar levels while HIIT temporarily increases blood sugar: "The authors suggest that the addition of one 10-second sprint after moderate intensity aerobic exercise can reduce hypoglycemia risk in physically active individuals who possess type 1 diabetes."
  • Brain health. This review article explains that exercise improves age-related cognitive decline and help prevent neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Cardiovascular health. This review article explains how both vigorous and moderate physical activity help prevent coronary heart disease.
  • Anti-ageing benefits. This review article explains how exercise may increase life expectancy by decreasing mortality risk factors like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer (by at least 30%).

Acceleration of fat loss with moderate exercise?

As we age, our basal metabolic rate decreases and we (especially women) find it harder to maintain a healthy weight. With the right type of exercise, you'll increase your muscle mass and with more muscles, you'll even burn more calories at rest.

But here's the catch: not as many as you may have thought. It's a common myth that just one extra pound of lean mass/ muscles will help you burn 30-50 calories per day at rest. If that were true, it would mean that with extra 10 pounds of muscle mass, I would be able to burn 300-500 calories and maybe even "enjoy" an extra bowl of breakfast cereals topped with honey. In fact, an extra pound of muscles will burn just about 6-10 calories. Ironically, even body fat cells require some energy to maintain themselves. When we lose body fat, our basal metabolic rate decreases so the net effect is even smaller.

As several studies and review articles show you cannot outrun a bad diet. Exercise by itself has an insignificant effect on weight loss in the long term. In this study, the authors concluded that exercise is not the key to the obesity epidemic. Although exercise is crucial for improving overall health and fitness levels, it will not help you lose more weight. The main reason seems to be that the more you exercise, the more you'll eat.

Change your mindset: Don't exercise just to burn calories and lose body fat. This approach doesn't work in the long term. Instead, exercise to build muscles and feel good about yourself. Whatever physical activity you chose, do it for pleasure. Focus on your diet, it's the most important factor for successful weight loss. If you are new to the keto diet, make sure you check out this free keto diet guide and sample diet plans.

What's Wrong with Cardio for Fat Loss

Moderate amounts of low-intensity cardio such as walking, hiking, swimming or cycling are health-improving activities. What is not beneficial endless hours of extreme spinning, running or hard-core cardio classes. Honestly, how many of you got to the point where you couldn't lose weight no matter how much you tried?

As I outlined above, exercise has great health benefits. The problem is that most people think about cardio as a fat-burning tool. I used to be one of them. We have been told that this is the best way to burn extra calories, balance calories in vs calories out and exercise as often and for as long as we can... again to burn more calories.

Let me tell you something: This is a race you cannot win. I love running and I even attended a marathon event a few years ago. However, based on what I know now, I never use cardio for fat loss because it simply doesn't work. Using prolonged cardio for fat loss and burning calories is simply not a sustainable lifestyle for the vast majority of people. Below are the reasons you should cut back on cardio:

1. Chronic cardio (repetitious aerobic training) will make you more hungry and you will likely eat more... unless you force yourself not to eat. Increased appetite means that your body feels ravenous after prolonged cardio and will demand those calories back! Also, chronic cardio leads to negative changes in anxiety and mood.

2. Chronic cardio raises the stress hormone cortisol which is responsible for storing fat in the stomach area (visceral fat). Long-term elevation of cortisol levels also lead to leptin resistance. Leptin plays role in appetite and body weight regulation and leptin resistance leads to increased appetite and food intake. Again, prolonged cardio will make you hungry.

3. Systemic/ chronic inflammation. Effective exercise is accompanied by acute inflammation which is necessary for building muscles and improving performance. However, exhaustive exercise will lead to systemic inflammation which you want to avoid. Also, this review article explains how prolonged exercise also leads to oxidative stress.

Studies show that low to moderate intensity, prolonged cardio exercise has shown to have insignificant effect on long-term weight loss. Prolonged cardio is also linked to several negative health effects such as leptin resistance, chronic inflammation and oxidative stress. Just like Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney say: Exercise is a wellness tool - not a weight loss tool!

Choose Wisely: Resistance Training and HIIT

Weight training (aka strength/ resistance training) and high-intensity intermittent training are the most effective tools for long-term fat loss.

Weight training

When you do weight training, focus on major muscle groups and don't forget about squats! The muscle-sparing effect of ketogenic diets will help you preserve and build lean mass.

Will I get bulky? Putting on muscles is not as easy as many people think, especially if you are a woman. One of the biggest misconceptions is that women grow big muscles when they lift heavy weights. It's a myth: women don't have the same hormone profile to bulk up just like men do. You will get more defined but not necessarily masculine. Also, the type of resistance training and nutrition play a crucial role. And after all, it depends what you perceive as "bulky."

Weight training will help you build and maintain muscles and burn slightly more calories at rest. It's a myth that women will grow big muscles if they lift weights. It takes years of training and specially designed nutrition to get to that level.

High-intensity intermittent training/ exercise (HIIT/ HIIE)

What is interval training? It's a training technique in which you alternate intense bursts of anaerobic exercise such as sprinting with short recovery periods. One of the effects is that you burn more calories in less time compared to other workout routines like prolonged cardio.

I already mentioned that you should not exercise just to burn extra calories but this is quite different in the case of HIIT. This study shows that an HIIT session made the participants less hungry than a low-intensity cardio session which significantly increased their appetite. Additionally, this review of studies explains how HIIT outperformed cardio exercise in terms of fat loss in both short-term and longer term studies. The authors suggest that: "Possible mechanisms underlying the HIIE-induced fat loss effect include increased exercise and postexercise fat oxidation and decreased postexercise appetite." If you want to know how a typical HIIT session looks, check out these videos from Bodyrock on Youtube - there are different HIIT sessions for both beginners and advanced levels.

Final tips

Exercise regularly but don't overdo it. Make sure to include rest days and get enough sleep. In general, exercise is good for you but be careful not to overdo it. Overexercising increases the risk of injury, negatively affects the immune system and increases stress-related hormones. Mark Sisson listed eight signs of overtraining in this post.

I consider myself moderately active. I won't go into great details of my workouts in this post but here's what I do: I walk daily for 30-45 minutes and exercise 3 times a week doing either weight training or HIIT. For weight training, I spend 30-45 minutes per session, including stretching and warmup times. For HIIT I spend no longer than 15-20 minutes per session.

Lastly, set yourself a realistic goal. You should be aiming to lose no more than 1-2 pounds a week. If you need to use a keto calculator, don't go for large calorie deficits: Ideally no more than 500 kcal deficit and depending on your BMR and activity level, shoot for a reasonable energy intake of 1400-1800 kcal. Remember, low-carb diets are sating and you will naturally eat less. Reaching a weight loss plateau may be caused by several reasons and you don't necessarily have to be eating too much, in fact, you may discover that you haven't been eating enough.

You can read even more about protein, carbs and exercise nutrition in these posts: Ketogenic Nutrition and Exercise: Protein and Ketogenic Nutrition and Exercise: Carbs

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Please, note that I do not offer personalised advice. For personalised advice you can contact one of our experts.

Comments (48)

I am currently doing diet control and walking for 45mins a day.
I am planning to do keto. I have read somewhere that with keto I should be doing weights and definitely should not continue walking as it will lead to muscle loss. Is that true? If I am not planning to start weights, is it better to stop walking with keto or should I continue the same?

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I think that light cardio is actually great and you should keep doing that. It'g good but not necessary to add some resistance training (I do 2-3 times a week) - even using your own body weight (no need for special equipment). Walking will not cause muscles loss and it's good for your cardiovascular system and brain health.

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First off, awesome article. This is pretty darn indepth! I tried keto for a contest prep once when my fat loss was stalled and it worked, like create miraculous results and pushed me past my fat plateau when I was at around 9 percent, helping me get to stage weight. I really liked how you touched upon the satiation effects of HIIT cardio. I used to do 60 minutes a day when preparing for a contest prep, how I do less cardio and all of it comes from HIIT and it has provided better fat loss results than LISS.
The only problem I had with keto, well besides the first couple days of side effects, was that I felt really terrible in the gym when training with weights. I feel as if keto is not the best route to maintain muscle mass but is the best way to lose fat bar none. Do you have any suggestions on feeling better while still lifting heavy in the gym on a keto diet? Thanks!
Chris

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Hi Chris, I suppose that may have been the result of the keto-adaptation period? It takes about 3-4 weeks - or even longer - for your body to get used to the diet and use fat and ketones effectively for energy instead of just glucogen. I'd give it some time - I can easily do resistance training these days (usually about 20-30 minutes of heavy weights). The only time I feel weak is with HIIT (usually ok if it's up to 30 minutes sessions but may cause issues if it's over 30 minutes).

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Hello everyone! Everything here is so great, I have been low carb for a while, grain and sugar free, but am relatively new to full on keto. The only time I truly do not seem satisfied with the diet is the dreaded pms week before female issues. Not only does my stomach turn into a bottomless pit, the sweets cravings attack. I know about the fat bomb book, but I am allergic to all nuts and seeds, as well as their products (oils, butters, etc). That drastically limits what I can have. A tiny square of dark chocolate just isn't cutting it.. Thoughts? Guys are lucky... Thank you!

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Hi Christine, you can use a filtering tool to search for recipes based on dietary requirements - have a look and give it a try: http://ketodietapp.com/Blog/category/Recipes (see the top part to specify your preferences)

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Hi everybody !
Glad to be part of this amazing community.
I just started Keto this week and already feeling less hungry.
What is difficult for me is to keep a real count of the totals I am eating.
By the Keto buddy I know my carbs shouldn't be higher than 25 gr and I am trying to keep that in those numbers, but at the end of the day I don't know how to summarize all my intakes of carbs, fat and protein ,couldn't find a counter to help me,any suggestions? Thank you !

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Hi Marty, 25 grams of net carbs is just a suggestion so may be able to eat more carbs - or less. My "ideal" level is about 30 grams of net carbs - that's the level that helps me maintain a healthy weight without affecting my thyroid (Hashimoto's). If you have an iPad, you can use our tracking app: http://ketodietapp.com/ - tracking features for the iPhone and Android devices coming soon Smile

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Hello,
is walking a good exercise to do? I love walking, more than anything, gym etc... what do u suggest/
Dee

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Yes, walking is good for your health, especially the cardiovascular system and brain.

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Hello,
Thanks for the web. I just would like to say that I love running and swimming. Normally I do 20-30 km per week running, and 5 km swimming. I started a ketogenic diet some days ago (I've read a lot of scientific papers about the benefits of it and I wanted to give it a try), and I really noticed a decreasement of my performance on 20-30%. That´s a lot. I am thinking that maybe in the future, when the body is used to get the energy from lipids rather than carbhydrates, I will recover my original performance. But now, it really sucks to check how your muscles can get the enougy energy and feeling tired.
Since I have competitions ahead, I was thinking that a good option could be training in a LCHF diet but increasing a bit the intake of carbhydrates, and the night before the competition allows myself to eat carbhydrate (pasta, rice, etc...) in order to have the energy to perform on my marks.
What do you think?

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Hi Antonio, it's common to experience low energy levels during the first 3-4 weeks, before your body gets adapted and uses fat and ketones for energy. Keep in mind that until then it is depended on glucose. I suggest you take it easy for the first few weeks and you should soon see an improvement. Carb cycling might be beneficial but I would personally avoid it if you just started - you can read more in this post: ketodietapp.com/.../keto-diet-nutrition-and-exercise-carbs

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Thanks for this fantastic website. Any keto friendly suggestion for avoiding and treating an hypoglycaemic attack during exercise, specifically hiking (5-6 Hours moderate-moderate/hard terrain)?

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I'm not a health professional but I think you need to snack more often if you have hypoglycaemia issues. Make sure you have keto-friendly snacks with you (beef jerky, nuts, seeds, avocados, etc).

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When does the appetite suppression kick in?  I have about 15 lbs to lose and been doing Keto faithfully for over 3 weeks.  I'm spot on with my calorie intake (average 1350-1650 per day according to your calculator for moderate to larger deficit) im good on my macros but I'm usually hungry and watching the clock until snack or meal time.   Adding even more fats or proteins will put me over my recommendation for calorie intake.  I only do 20 mins of HIIT 4-5 days per week. I get plenty of sleep and have low stress.  I keep reading about all these Keto people with loss of appetite.   What could I be doing wrong?

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It depends. In my case it took a couple of weeks. For the first few days I actually ended up eating more but that has stabilised after a week or so. If you feel hungry, you have to eat more no matter what the calculator suggests - your appetite will go down, just give it some time.

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I m on Keto for last 16 dyas. I lost weight in 1st week but, later I m not loosing weight anymore. I m doing it properly. Carb under 5%. Any suggestions??

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Please, check out tis post: ketodietapp.com/.../how-to-low-carb-15-common-weight-loss-mistakes

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i body build have for the last 8 years. 5-6 days a week for two hours.  hardly any cardio because my rest periods are 30-40 seconds. so i really get heart going.   i took personal chart to figure out percentages of fats, proteins, and fats.  according to my height, weight, age and bmr.  results: 2556 kcal calorie intake. carbs 25g which is 4% 100kcal. protein 140g which is 22% 560 kcal.  fats 211g which is 74% 1896 kcal.i have to watch it for carbs.  sometimes go 1-2 g more...and with occasional whey protein drink i am below protein grams.  i am afraid i will lose some muscle mass.fats are right on.   what do you think Martina?  thanks!                  

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Hi Mark, check out my macronutrient calculator - you won't lose muscles if you eat enough protein and fat: http://ketodietapp.com/Blog/page/KetoDiet-Buddy 1-2 grams of extra carbs won't make a difference.

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Hi Martina,
great blog. I like the precise way you write and I got some really useful tips in the past. With this topic, I think you have to be careful to rely too much on research. Research is always limited. They take one or two factors and make conclusions. But life is much more complex. For example - the latest fashion thing - HIIT. It has been around for a long time by the way. I did HIIT sessions as an elite cross-country skier in the late 70ties. They work very well for a few weeks to a few months but they eventually burn you out (The research didn't check on that). Anyway, if it comes to exercise and health, I think one of the wisest people around is Dr. Phil Maffetone. I tried his approach for many years with fantastic success. The good news? He is also a stern low carb advocate. The short message: 1. Only aerobic fat-burning exercise for 3 to 6 months until you are a good fat-burner. 2. Then small amounts of anaerobic exercise (weights, intensity, HIIT) is possible for some people with great aerobic function. Check him out and see what you think.

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Thank you for your insights Markus, I'll check Dr. Phil Maffetone out! I think that in any case it's good to build some endurance and improve fitness level before doing weights and HIIT, especially in beginners.

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An Addition. I went through 12 weeks of cardio rehab, 30 minutes 3 times a week on a treadmill. My intensity grew substantially during that time, saw my ability to climb the stairs at work dramatically increase. Since I never paid attention to this with weight training in the past, seeking someone more aware of their body than me who has seen an effect of HIIT only.

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I would like to reply to Mark based on my experience.  I quit virtually all forms of working out when I started Keto because I wanted to focus 100% on the diet.  I have recently started back up and I am absolutely blown away by my stamina.  I can do twice as much as I did before and virtually no bonk whatsoever.  I was actually nervous to start working out again and now I am just amazed and how easily I work back into it.

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Agree with everything here. Question. If you focus only on HIIT and Resistance training, long term, how does that influence your stamina. I would like an answer from someone who has experienced a substantial amount of time avoiding direct cardio exercise. So. After a year of no conventional cardio will you be able to walk up 10 flights of stairs better than before beginning that regimen? Very interested to gain insight on this question.

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Hi Kent, I don't think you should completely give up cardio - it's still good for your health. To increase endurance you still need cardio but it also depends on how much you want to improve. I used to do prolonged cardio but not for the last 4 years. These days I'd usually have a 10 minute warm-up, then resistance training for 20-30 minutes and then 10 minutes of cardio + stretching. This all 3-4 times a week + every day I walk for 45-60 minutes. I hope someone else can comment here!

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My trainer told me HIIT is the worst thing possible for a keto dieter. He reccommend steady state 20 minute cardio (walk or bike) after I lift.  

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It depends, I do HIIT every now and then and sometimes with small carb-ups after my workouts. More about carb-ups is here: ketodietapp.com/.../keto-diet-nutrition-and-exercise-carbs

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I am so thankful for finding your blog and just downloaded your app! This article answers so many questions I had been struggling with recently. I've lost so much so far with Keto and still have a long way to go...I'm still over 300...but once I added in some high intensity workouts I began to falter and stall...and even gained weight. I've been back in the groove the past week and ready to incorporate something new....like HIIT. Smile

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Thank you Erica, I really appreciate that!

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And if someone (*me!) just plain LOVES to run? Then what? Does this mean maybe LCHF is not for me? Honest question. If I had to pick between never meeting my goal weight or giving up running, I'd immediately and without hesitation give up my goal weight! I don't sprint, I don't really run fast at all, and I don't run far (longest run to date was just under 5 miles) but please don't ask me to or tell me I should give it up Frown

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Hi Sarah, of course you can run, especially if you enjoy it. Just do it for pleasure/ health, not for weight loss. Based on what you described you'll do great on a LCHF diet, even without extra carbs.

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I'm glad someone else asked about running! I love running and prior to starting keto in May I had ran a few 5Ks & 8ks. I'm now starting to run again so I'm glad to hear that it is absolutely okay if I continue running! I also do some resistance training and a lot of yoga. Since starting keto I have definitely cut back on the amount of cardio I do on a weekly basis. Last year I was doing intense HIIT 4-5 days a week and I think that was too much for my body to handle. I was exhausted all the time!

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I have to agree, too much HIIT is not for me either - not without carb-ups!

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Even with Carbs it is too much.

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Great post! I never lost weight with cardio... The only thing that always works is LCHF diet, diet, diet .... and then resistance training. I wish I could work out but I now have to recover from injury :-( I just hope i can keep it off, so far so goo, LCHF rules! Smile

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I'm sure you will, hope you feel better soon!

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Great article, thanks for busting all the myths!!

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I was wondering if you lose muscles? I thought I needed to add carbs if I exercise? Any thoughts?

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No you won't lose muscles if you eat enough protein - low-carb/ ketogenic diets have proven to help preserve and build muscle mass. In most cases you won't need carbs but you may do for certain types of high-intensity exercise. I'll share more info in my upcoming post on exercise & nutrition Smile

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Thanks for sharing! I started about 2 weeks ago and now used your keto calculator  to realize that I can eat about 300 more calories to "maintain" and I want to lose so it's great to know that low-carb eating keeps me full. That's only confirmed the 4 pounds loss!

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That's great, well done!!

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Thanks for all the great tips. I've been there too. I have hypo thyroid and low carb is the only thing that has made a real difference. I can finally maintain my weight without starving and exercising every day. I can't wait for you to share your personal training routine! By the way, do you recommend carb backloading?

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Hi Emily, thank you! Exercise nutrition as well as my own exercise routine will follow soon after. Carb backloading may beneficial if you do a lot of high-intensity exercise and I'll get to the details in another post.

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I love your post, well researched as always well done! I'm glad to hear some of the myths debunked here especially bulking up, burning 50 more calories from a pound of muscles and that cardio is not for fat loss!

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Thank you Diana!

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Fantastic article and very pleased that fact liftting heavy weight doesnt make woman bulky has been finally said loud.
I know it but some people still think 'no way i not liftting otherwise I get bulky' for me personally is only way to get toned!

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I totally agree. I used to think that way years ago but now I've been lifting heavy weights for the last 4 years Smile

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