When it comes to weight loss, the conventional wisdom is clear: you need to clean up your diet and do more exercise. However, that truism doesn't explain why some studies, including this meta-analysis, found that weight-loss plans that included both diet and exercise were only marginally more effective than plans that focused on diet alone.

Why might this be? First of all, the calories burned through exercise account for only a relatively small amount of the total calories someone burns in a day, and it is thus incredibly hard to create a significant calorie deficit through exercise alone.

To lose one pound of fat, you need to burn approximately 3,500 calories. Since even a relatively tough one-hour workout will probably burn only about 500 calories, you would need to work out for at least an hour every day to lose even a pound a week, a pace that many people would find demoralizingly slow.

Spending that much time in the gym also simply isn't realistic to many people's lifestyles. Even if you can find the time, you may then end up negating some of these benefits by moving around less when you aren't working out, either because you consciously think you deserve the rest or because your body is sending you signals suggesting that you should conserve your energy.

Some dieters also find that exercising raises their appetite, or that they feel entitled to "reward" themselves for all their hard work by eating extra food. However, they could easily undo their entire workout with just two glasses of wine or a slice of cake. In fact, there are some high calorie restaurant meals out there that could erase a whole week's worth of workouts!

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Yet while the weight loss benefits of exercise can be modest, the health benefits of exercise are very real and very impressive. Exercise has been associated with lower rates of liver disease, inflammation, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and cancer.

Frequent exercisers also had less abdominal fat, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 40 percent lower risk of dying early compared to people who exercise less than 30 minutes a week.

That's why some experts think that by framing our sedentary lifestyles as a weight issue rather than a health issue, we've been going about things all wrong! In this framework, thin people may get the false idea that they don't need to exercise, which could set them up for weight gain, health problems, and mobility issues later in life. Likewise, overweight people who can't exercise their way into a calorie deficit significant enough to cause weight loss may wrongly decide that it's not worth exercising at all.

Interestingly enough, one study found that a group of overweight people who were given an intervention that emphasized exercise's health benefits independent of weight ended up exercising more frequently than a control group! If your focus is on improving your health rather than burning maximum calories, exercising may feel less like a punishment, and you may be more likely to choose a form of exercise they actually enjoy and thus are more likely to stick with.

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The greatest benefits of exercise for weight loss may actually be indirect ones. There is some evidence that exercise makes it easier to stick to a diet by altering your appetite so that you prefer healthier food, or by reducing the symptoms of mental health problems that may have played a part in your weight gain.

Exercising during weight loss can also help preserve your muscle, which can ensure that your basal metabolic rate remains as high as possible. It can also boost your fat loss and reduce your cravings by improving your insulin sensitivity.

The benefits exercise can have on your self-confidence can also have indirect effects on your dieting efforts, and can help you take a more holistic view of health and fitness instead of beating yourself up for the way your body looks.

Finally, while exercise alone is unlikely to lead to significant weight loss, it may be the key to maintaining your new low weight. The National Weight Control Registry has found that 90 percent of people who have maintained their weight loss for over a year exercise frequently, on average about an hour a day.

Because of their bodies' metabolic adaptions, someone who has formerly been overweight needs to eat less calories to maintain their weight than someone who has always been lean. Exercise could thus help them "make up the difference" and prevent them from slipping back into old habits, while giving them a cushion of sorts for the occasional indulgence.

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There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and huge individual differences in how people respond to various weight loss strategies, so if you did somehow manage to lose weight through exercise alone, more power to you!

However, for the average fitness novice whose main objective is to lose as much weight as possible as quickly as possible, it may make the most sense to stick to light exercise or even just moving more in less formal ways during your weight loss journey. Then, you can gradually incorporate additional activity into your maintenance plan once you're more comfortable with your healthier lifestyle.

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