Most of us are inclined to believe that in order to lose weight we need to burn more calories than we consume. And while the premise of calories in vs. calories out seems quite logical is it really the way the human body works?
Exercise falls under this (calories in/calories out) umbrella, if you burn more calories than you take in you will lose weight. However, while it appears to help some people lose weight others are quite perplexed at its ineffectiveness to produce even satisfactory weight loss results.
So, the question becomes, is exercise really as helpful as most of us believe when it comes to losing weight?
Exercise and Health
First and foremost exercise is really great at boosting our health. In fact, It’s been proven that by participating in some sort of physical activity just 3 days per week can lower your risk factor of many chronic issues, including but not limited to: sarcopenia, metabolic syndrome, obesity, insulin resistance, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, osteoporosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, erectile dysfunction, and this list goes on and on. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
What’s more, in recent studies, it has been documented that people who are fit and engage in a regular exercise regimen have up to a 50 percent lower risk of early mortality compared to physically inactive individuals. (6)
Exercise is also incredibly good for your mental health as well. It’s been proven to be extremely helpful for managing stress, depression and anxiety while boosting cognition. (7)
So, keep this in mind when you consider the effects of exercise. Even if it isn’t an effective method for you to lose weight, it still has other major benefits that are probably more important.
Exercise, Appetite and Behavior
One arguable reason that exercise may appear ineffective for losing weight could be due to the fact that exercise increases hunger in some people, making them eat more than they normally would. And although this doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, studies do show that some people eat more after working out, which can prevent them from losing weight. (8, 9, 10)
It’s also been suggested that exercise may make some people overestimate the number of calories they’ve burned while rewarding themselves with food. This reward behavior can prevent weight loss and in many cases even lead to weight gain. (11, 12)
Physical activity may also play a role in stimulating Ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone produced mainly by the stomach with small amounts also released by the small intestine, pancreas and brain. Ghrelin is termed the ‘hunger hormone’ because it stimulates appetite, increases food intake and promotes fat storage. (13)
However, how exercise affects appetite and food intake varies between individuals. And while some studies show a direct link between exercise and appetite others are mixed. In fact, some studies show that both appetite and food intake after exercise can vary between people. (14, 15)
Rethinking Weight Loss
Exercise is often recommended for weight loss. However, people really need to rethink the term “weight loss” and switch their mentality to fat loss.
Simply by reducing your food intake or restricting your calories will help you lose weight, in the short run, without exercising. But you will most likely be losing muscle as well as fat. (20)
When you cut back on calories, your body is forced to find other sources of fuel. Unfortunately, this means burning muscle protein along with your fat stores. In fact, it’s been estimated that when people lose weight while trying to cut or restrict their calorie intake, about a quarter of the weight they lose is lean muscle tissue. (21)
This is vitally important to note because muscle is metabolically active tissue. So, by preventing muscle loss you will help counter the drop in your metabolic rate that occurs when you lose weight, which will end up making it extremely difficult to lose weight and keep it off. (22)
Therefore, including an exercise program in conjunction with changing your dietary needs, especially increasing your protein intake, will help reduce the amount of muscle you may lose while using a calorie restrictive approach alone. (23)
Additionally, most of the benefits of exercise seem to come in the way of an improved body composition, overall fitness and metabolic health. Therefore, even if you don’t show a weight loss on the scale, you may still be losing fat while building muscle, which should be looked at as an extremely healthy and fair tradeoff. (24)
The scale can be quite deceiving by not telling you the whole story. Therefore, it can be helpful to take body measurement and body fat percentage from time to time. Since muscle is 25 percent denser than fat, you can actually weigh more while sporting a smaller waist, hips, butt, thighs and arms, thereby fitting into smaller clothes.
So, when it comes to losing weight, you want to “rethink” your approach by maximizing fat loss while minimizing muscle loss. It is possible to lose body fat without losing much weight on the scale.
So…Does Exercise Help You Lose Weight?
The effects of exercise on weight loss or gain obviously varies from person to person. And although some people who exercise will lose weight over the long term, some people find that their weight remains stable and a few people will even end up gaining weight. (25)
But, in many cases, if exercise is done consistently, over the long term, most of the weight gain experienced will actually be healthy lean muscle tissue, not fat.
While exercise will improve your over-all health and help you lose weight, a healthy diet is an absolute critical piece of the puzzle, especially for long term success. Studies clearly show that when comparing diet and exercise, changing your diet tends to be far more effective for weight loss than exercise. (26, 27)
Keeping Weight off Long Term
Keeping weight off once you have lost it is hard. In fact, studies suggest that only about 15 percent of people who lose weight are able to keep it off. (28)
But perhaps what’s most interesting is the people who have lost weight and were able to keep it off for years had incorporated a consistent exercise regimen into their lifestyle. (29)
However, it’s crucial to find a type of physical activity you will enjoy that fits easily into your over-all lifestyle. This way, you have a much better chance of keeping it up over the long haul.
The absolute most effective strategy for losing weight and keeping it off involves both diet and exercise with dieting leading the way.