There's an interesting article in TIME that says exercise doesn't do much for weight loss.


I've been a member of the same health club for over 15 years, so I've observed lots of regulars and how their bodies change. One thing I rarely see is people losing weight, no matter how often they go to the gym. Personally, I've never heard of anyone losing significant weight by eating the same as they always did and exercising more. But I know plenty of people who have lost weight by eating less, regardless of how much they exercised.

Today's question: Did you already know that exercise is nearly useless for weight loss? And if not, what kept you from noticing the obvious?

(Note: Experts still agree that exercise is vital for good health, but not because of weight loss.)

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Aug 10, 2009
I have been on the weight watchers plan for some time now and I carefully measure everything I eat. I reached a plateau recently where my weight did not change for a long time. Decreasing the amount I ate just made me hungry. So I continued to eat the same carefully measured amount (mostly the same things on the same days of the week) and began walking briskly for about a half an hour a day. I have lost about a pound a week (about 15 pounds in 15 weeks). Of course, I was very sedentary before, so any exercise is a big increase. Regardless of the reason I look better, feel better and weigh less, so I will stick with what works no matter what studies may show.
Aug 10, 2009
A. You cannot turn fat into muscle. (Actually, according to the latest research, some kinds of fat actually will turn into muscle under the right !$%*!$%*!$%*!$ but the average American will rarely submit to those extremes.) You can lose weight by exercise, but you have to work out for hours rather than minutes, and you always have to control your diet as well. The pernicious part of all this that your body tends to adjust to whatever amount you're eating and exercising and tries to maintain your genetically determined weight no matter what. If you want to be thinner, you have to learn to love being hungry. I'm maintaining twenty pounds below my "normal" weight, but I eat about 1000 calories less than the recommended 2400-2800, and I average at least six hours of strenuous exercise per week in addition to a normal high activity level with lots of walking. That leaves me way off the standard charts. My pulse is normally in the 40s, my body fat is 6 to 7%, and I feel great except for being hungry a lot. In spite of all that I STILL have a little roll of fat around my waist, so don't expect miracles whatever you do.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 10, 2009
The so-called experts are clueless. every spring I start biking to work - 12.5 !$%*! each way - and every spring I lose 7-8 lbs. After biking season here on the east coast is over, i gain it back. I don't change my diet one bit, in fact i actually probably eat worse because I tend to get hungry sooner and will snack when biking. So here's a single data point that shows exercise does help lose weight.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 10, 2009
When i joined the gym my weight was 179 with 20% body fat.
I started 1 hour of cardio and hitting the weight after 3-4 times a week.
I dindt change my diet. Now i'm sitting on 172 with 18% body fat. And NOW i can say i hit a wall.
Havent loose any more weight even when i can jog 7 !$%*! @ 6.5 mph avg.

Guess the times is right. You can eat less do exercise and loose weight. that's the real magic bullet!

If i don't die, i'm sure i will not gain weight, ill just break even!
Aug 10, 2009
Protip: muscle weighs more than fat. If you're losing weight, you're doing it wrong.
Aug 10, 2009
There was a cool study done @ Harvard by Ellen Langer & Alia Crum that asked the question "Are the benefits of Exercise mostly the placebo effect?"

In large part, the answer was yes.


Long story short - even the things like blood pressure, waist size & muscle density were all affected in a manner consistent with the placebo effect. (Above link has commentary on study & links to the paper).
Aug 10, 2009
Exercise isn't for weight loss. It's for turning fat into muscle.
Aug 10, 2009
I already knew diet was for weight loss and exercise was for keeping your body healthy.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 10, 2009
It actually looks like excersize DOES help you lose weight, it just sounds like people don't have enough--shall we call it "free will"--to not totally pig out after excersizing.

Besides, even if you're not losing weight, you're at least building muscle. And this, in my opinion, looks a heck of a lot better on a person than cellulite.
Aug 10, 2009
Yes. This is absolutely true. I'm at a healthy weight now and I do work out - but after I had kids, I stayed overweight for years at the same time that I was working out 2 to 3x more than I do now. You have to cut calories. Exercise is important, but it is not the answer on its own. For those who say you just have to increase the amount you exercise, all I can say is "Oh, Please!" Not everyone has hours a day free to hit the gym. Some folks have jobs, kids, responsibilities at home and that nagging, annoying need to sleep. There are limits. I know. I smacked into them repeatedly.

I think exercise and healthy eating are important enough that it is well worth rearranging other priorities to make it happen. Even so there are life stages when you just can't get there. At some point, that has to be OK.
Aug 10, 2009
Ah, yes. We'd all like to believe this, wouldn't we? So Michael Phelps ingests 12,000 calories a day and yet doesn't get fat because of--just dumb luck? I agree with the previous commenter who heard the !$%*!$%* alarm ringing. Some obvious issues with the article:

1. "Weight" is probably not the metric that most people are really interested in. Dropping fat and adding muscle in some cases leads to an increase in body weight while the individual slims down. Body measurements or percentage of body fat might be more meaningful.

2. Even the most strenuous exercise group in the study worked out for less than 30 minutes a day. Puh-leeze. It takes me longer than that just to drive to the gym.

My own theory is that a major factor in the success (or lack thereof) of an exercise program is the individual's mindset. If you're going to spend 20 minutes on the Stairmaster while flipping through a magazine and then whine about how much willpower you've used up, it's probably not going to happen for you. (Willpower IS required for this type of exercise program, because it's just so damn boring.) On the other hand, if you're really interested in finding out what your body is capable of, and pursue the goal intelligently, it will be far more enjoyable and effective at the same time.

Serge Gorodish
Aug 10, 2009
Here's some simple math that I think you'll enjoy: If you burn more calories than you eat, you lose weight.

I'm not overweight, but when I started working out regularly my body shape changed. Clothes fit differently, and like the way I look. To answer the real question though, no, I didn't lose weight. I just moved it around.
Aug 10, 2009
Yes, I was aware that it's much harder to lose weight through exercise than by dieting.

The math is pretty simple. If you cut your intake by 3000 calories a week, you'll lose about a pound a week (ignoring any metabolic changes).

The first source I found says 600 cals/hr for a stationary bike, so burning 3000 calories on a stationary bicycle takes about FIVE HOURS. Even most people who go to the gym regularly don't do five hours of sustained intense aerobic exercise every week. (they might get one or two.)

One or two hours of exercise would still lead to weight loss if people restricted their caloric intake - the main thrust of the TIME article is just that people get hungry and eat more after exercising. I've heard for years that to lose weight you need to "eat less, exercise more." If you don't eat less, and in fact eat more, then you're not really complying with the conventional wisdom, are you?

Basically this is interesting but doesn't really contradict anything I have heard or believed about exercise and weight loss. Losing weight is hard and requires us to defeat our bodies' natural tendency to try to acquire and retain at least enough fuel to maintain our weight. If you don't feel somewhat malnourished most of the time, chances are you aren't doing what it would take to lose weight.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 10, 2009
Workout really hard and you'll end up burning sugars, which need to be replaced.
Workout moderately (between 60% and 70% of your max heartrate) and you'll end up burning fat, which most of us don't need replacing. On top of that, you can keep doing that all day without feeling tired or particularly hungry.

Check out : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Exercise_zones.png

Losing weight through excercise isn't all that hard, it just takes a long time.

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 10, 2009
This article makes one very valid point - it takes a lot of work and time to burn off quite a small amount of calories.

It also makes one equally true, but rather less valid point - that if you are a total moron who goes and has muffins after they exercise then the exercise won't be doing much for you. Thats more about the person than the exercise.

The other fact is that you can't divorce weight loss and health. Sure, if you want to lose weight very quickly, diet is the main factor. But by crash dieting you will slow you metabolism - making it easier to put the weight back on, lose muscle mass - making you look less fit and toned, and potentially damage your body by depriving yourself of essential nutrients.

If you therefore ate a little more and exercised away the difference you would achieve the same weight loss with an overall much healthier outcome.
Aug 10, 2009
In my personal experience and observations, it isn't exercise, but rather the type of exercise. My entire life had been sedentary and I've never been in good physical condition and I've never played any sports. Through the luck of good genes I had never gotten really obese, just flabby. I had a steady routine of lots of cardio and a little flailing around on the weight machines. After years of this and watching almost nothing happening, I hired a professional trainer. He introduced me to resistance training (weight lifting). That change made all the difference. I went from 230 lbs. to 190 lbs. and my tight 38 inch waist jeans went to a loose 36 inches. This was over the course of a year. I made little, if any, change to my diet.

I started observing others in the gym as they pounded day after day on the cardio machines, steadily growing larger and larger in many cases. I had minor surgery and wasn't able to work out, but I am now back at my full routine and the weight I gained has gone away. I am now stronger and in better physical condition than I've ever been. To sum it up, at 58 years old, I feel better about my body than I ever had in my life. I wish I'd been able to grasp this many, many years ago. Resistance training was the answer for me.
Aug 10, 2009
Scott, I read on your blog once that when you read/hear certain theories, your spidey-sense tells you immediately that this is bull****, and this article has my spidey sense tingling. Without going into all those reasons that make it wrong, I can tell you that I have lost 20 lbs just by excercising with the same diet - not once by twice. I lost 20 lbs for the first time in 2001-02 just by walking excessively, then gained them back slowly in 2005- 2008 as I worked in a cubicle (I always avoided junk food and soda, so that didn't change). Then, over the last one year, I have lost those 20 lbs once more as I came back to school leaving my job and started walking long distances and gymming regularly, without any significant change in diet.

What do you say to that? You could say excercise doesn't reduce weight for some people, but you simply cannot generalize that!
Aug 10, 2009
I've been a healthy weight for most of my life. The only time I was even close to overweight I was also excercising the most in my life, and eating the most too.
Mind you I was also fairly healthy. Much of the weight was in muscles. My strength was way up but my endurance was way down.
I'm almost certain that the two biggest factors for weight are diet and genetics (not sure which order). My wife eats much less than me and excercises more, but still struggles to control her weight. She has a family history of Type II diabetes while I come from a long line of stick people.
Everyone is different but my key to maintaining a healthy weight is to include lots of fibre, limit my meat intake, drink lots of water, and manage stress (which includes excercise). Everything else seems to be optional.
Aug 10, 2009
When I exercise, I eat more, so I gain weight. I find I'm actually healthier if I don't exercise at all.
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 10, 2009
Ha! I knew it! I told you so!
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