Will Exercise Make Me Lose Weight?
Will exercise make me lose weight? What a silly question, right? Of course it will! Hold up there for just a minute and let's explore what we hold to be common sense just a little further...
It's time for some SCIENCE! 🤓
Let's start off by listing some amazing facts about exercise...prepare to have your mind blown! 🤯
Exercise is probably the singular BEST thing you can do for your health - that's right, that beats eating more veggies, cutting out the booze...well maybe the best thing you can do besides quitting smoking. I get that I might be a bit biased, but I don't want to totally exaggerate here! So, okay, if exercise is the second best thing you can do for your health in my opinion, here's why:
Cardiovascular exercise makes for a stronger heart...did you know that your cardio fitness level is one of the strongest predictors of your morbidity and mortality?  This means that having a strong heart reduces your risk of death from all causes!
Cardiovascular exercise also reduces blood pressure and cholesterol regardless of weight (that's right, you benefit immensely from exercise even if you're not at your ideal weight), as well as the risk of blood clots
Weight-bearing exercise improves the strength of your bones and cartilage (say sionara to osteoporosis!)
Exercise has been shown in many cases to be equally effective to antidepressants for the treatment of depression
Along those same lines, exercise improves the ability to relax and sleep
It also improves mental alertness
Exercise improves lean body mass (less flab, more muscle!), which also helps to improve your metabolic rate (i.e., more calories burned every minute!)
Exercise strengthens and builds muscle that will keep you mobile and upright your entire life! (Here's a link to my personal list of why I train.)
WOW, right?!?! Exercise is truly amazing for your health. Interestingly, you may notice one thing missing from that list. AND I WANT TO BE VERY CLEAR ABOUT THIS.
Exercise is NOT awesome for helping people to lose weight.
What, Sarah? For real?
Yeah, unfortunately. Let me be very clear. Exercise DOES burn calories and it definitely can help you shed some body fat. It's just that it's not the most efficient way to do so.
For example, you hear people nowadays say, Oh, well just lift weights and you will add tons of muscle that will burn tons more calories every day. Not so fast, Arnold Jr. You don't just build that kind of muscle that quickly. Additionally, what you've heard about the extent to which you burn more calories through additional weight lifting is largely exaggerated, with the "50 calories per additional pound of muscle added" outlandishly overstated.
Moreover, with any kind of exercise, people tend to grossly overestimate how many calories they are burning during the activity, often by about 50% (not surprisingly, they tend to also grossly underestimate how many calories they consume, also by about 50%...interesting...🤔). For example, say a 200 calorie man walks on the treadmill for a half hour at about 3.5 miles per hour...how many calories do you think he will burn?
234. OMG, are you for real??? That's like a Lean Cuisine.
And, to top it all off, here's the real buzz-kill: a 2017 study found that, for women who were overweight or obese, exercise actually increased their appetite hormones , proving that, once again, it's hard to outsmart your body. ("Lean" women gained muscle mass.) Many of you may have inadvertently experienced this - you exercise more, but then suddenly you feel even hungrier. This can be exacerbated by the aforementioned problem of underestimating how much you eat and overestimating how much you burn with exercise.
If you are one of those exercise "converts" - you know who you are - you hated exercise and now you have found your niche, whether running or lifting or whatever it is that moves you and can't get enough - it can be dually frustrating because your new-found hobby might actually be making it seem harder to lose weight. You might need to decide if you are exercising just to facilitate weight loss or if you are actually trying to improve your athleticism and maybe even compete (e.g., train for a race or other fitness competition, PR on lifts, etc.). If it is the latter, you might need to add some additional nutrition around your more intense exercise sessions. This is a more in-depth topic that should be discussed with me or another trainer or nutritionist.
The take-home: Using exercise alone for weight loss is a futile effort and one likely to end in frustration.
So, here's what we've got so far: 1. Exercise kinda sucks for losing weight unless you really bust your butt with some serious intensity BUUUUUTTT, that leads us to 2. For many folks (and particularly the ladies), exercise can actually make us feel even hungrier.
So what gives? Should you abandon exercise all together for weight loss purposes? If it doesn't help you lose weight, is there any point at all???
Absolutely! Please go back to the top and revisit that list. Remember, the benefits of exercise are largely independent of weight. So even if you have a few extra pounds that you'd like to shed, you will likely still experience the abundance of health benefits that exercise has to offer.
But if weight loss is your goal, what can you do? Here are my thoughts (and of course those of scientists) on the most efficient way to lose weight:
1. The absolutely positively number one thing you must do is create a caloric deficit (i.e., you are consuming fewer calories than you are burning). The best way I have found to get this process started is to LEARN WHAT IS IN YOUR FOOD. Turn stuff over. Read the labels. Stop ignoring what is right there in front of you. We live in an age of transparency. Back in the day, you often had no idea what was in your food. Nutrition labels didn't become requisite until 1990! We now have apps that we can use to track what we are eating. I get it, it's not always sexy or even convenient to track your food. But you know what? It works. If you want to lose weight, get intimately familiar with what you are putting in your mouth. Understand what kinds of foods rack up the calories faster and what foods you can eat with more liberty to feel fuller. If you need help with these topics, please see my abundance of articles on this topic with these articles:
I'm not saying you have to track, but it definitely helps, at least while you are getting familiar with what is in food...I guarantee, you will be shocked!
2. Add exercise. That's right - I get this whole post is about how you can't just use exercise to lose, BUT studies have found that the most efficient way to lose weight is a combination of diet and exercise - more so than diet alone. Interestingly enough, physical activity alone is useful for weight maintenance . When you do exercise, exercising a minimum of 150 minutes per week (that is a mere 30 minutes a day) is more important than the intensity level (vigorous vs. moderate) and produces greater weight loss than exercising less than 150 minutes per week . Individuals who exercise more than this, ideally closer to 300 minutes per week (or about an hour a day), experience greater weight loss and better maintenance . In addition to all of it's feel-good effects and health benefits, exercise will contribute to your calorific deficit as well as build more muscle that will help to shape your body more than just dieting alone.
3. Do something different than what you are doing right now. If you have gotten "stuck" - i.e., a plateau - it's time to change something up! It has been said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you are not happy with the results you're getting, CHANGE SOMETHING! Here are some examples:
If you've really ramped up your exercise and are doing tons of high intensity exercise but just find yourself hungry, frustrated, and the scale going nowhere, back off from this kind of exercise! You might want to give yourself a whole week off from exercise and even dieting and then start back with lots of walking and perhaps one day to start of moderate intensity exercise. See if that little break doesn't give you a jump-start.
Think about this for a second: when you first started exercising, you were like, WOW, this really works! I am losing weight! You know why? You did something different. Your body had previously been in homeostasis and you created an impetus to change. Now your body has adapted...and that's a good thing! You are more fit! You are healthier! But you are probably also in homeostasis again and your body needs a little kick in the pants to start making changes again. If you've been coasting along on the same program, try changing it up a bit. If you've been cardio-heavy, mix in some more weights. If you've only been in the weight room, pay the old treadmill a little visit.
If you've made good initial progress but your progress is stuck in a rut, try changing up your diet a bit. You could try eating a more plant-based diet if you typically eat a fair share of meat. If you eat a higher carb diet, try reducing your carbs by a small amount to see if this makes a difference (or vice versa). Try changing up your daily breakfast. If you eat out frequently, take a break for a week. DO. SOMETHING. DIFFERENT.
4. Stay positive. I cannot begin to tell you how many people get frustrated by this process and trust me, I get it, it can definitely be frustrating. But here's the deal. You absolutely must embrace and believe in the process. If you are stressed or feeling negative, it is very hard for it to work. First, stress increases your cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which can stall body fat loss and also create water retention. Second, stress makes it difficult to believe in what you are doing and persist on days you just want to give in. Stay positive. Go back to #3 and try something different with all your conviction. Which takes us to...
5. Stay consistent! Once you've committed to something (including a change, like I discussed in #3), stick with it! If you have been behaving one way for a long time, it can take time for your body to catch on and start to show changes on the scale. Remember, our bodies resist change (remember that study about how the exerciser's appetite hormones increased?) - they want to stay the same! You must coax the weight off, not force it.
This article wound up being a little longer than what I initially intended but it was inspired by something I've seen quite a bit - frustration when exercise alone or adding more exercise doesn't seem to help achieve weight loss goals...and sometimes seems to make it harder. I hope this blog has shed some light on why that might be the case (and that it's an actual, scientific "thing"). Now that you know why, make sure that you are embracing exercise for all of the positive benefits it can bring to your life, both physical and mental. Know that changes in your weight will be almost impossible if you don't address the elephant in the room of nutrition. And know that, in some cases, exercise can actually make you hungrier, which means you might need to pay attention to how it makes you feel and see if you need to make any changes.
Weight loss is neither a linear nor static process. You must continue to reflect how your current process is working and make small adaptations. Keep an open mind, be willing to alter your course, and then stay consistent so you can make an actual assessment. I wish you all the best, and if you ever need more personalized guidance with the process, please contact me here or use my virtual training program to help achieve your goals!
In good health,
BONUS #1: Get your free PDF copy of my Research-Based Fat-Loss Checklist by clicking here!
1. Clark, M. A., Lucett, S. C., Sutton, B. G. (Eds.). (2012). NASM essentials of personal fitness training (4th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
2. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism (2017; doing.org/10.1139/apnm-2017-0577).
3. Schaar, B., Moos-Thiele, C., & Platen, P. (2010). Effects of exercise, diet, and a combination of exercise and diet in overweight and obese adults: A meta-analysis of the data. The Open Sports Medicine Journal, 4, 17-28.
4. Chambliss, H. O. (2005). Exercise duration and intensity in a weight-loss program. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 15(2), 113-115.
5. Jakcic, J. M., Clark, K., Coleman, E., Donnelly, J. E., Foreyt, J., Melanson, E., … Volpe, S. L. (2001). Appropriate intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33(12), 2145-2156.