Exercise Alone Rarely Works for Fat Loss


Looking to start an exercise program to lose weight? ...Read this first.

The Gist

  1. Research shows little to no relationship between energy expenditure and body fat levels. (A gigantic study on 34 079 women concluded that, to prevent fat gain with exercise alone, women must exercise for approximately 60 minutes every day. The amount needed to lose fat was undetermined.)

  2. The #1 reason for this is a subconscious increase in food intake. However, conscious increase in food intake is also a contributor as people who are told they are "exercising" consume 41% more calories than those who are told they are being active for "fun".

  3. Nutrition, and in particular taking control over energy in, is the missing key to allowing fat loss to occur with exercise.

  4. Nutrition + exercise interventions result in a rate of fat loss that is 3-10x faster than exercise alone. Nutrition accounts for at least 70% of this fat loss.

  5. You should still exercise as it is likely the single most important modifiable determinant of your health and longevity.

  6. If your goal is to lose fat, create a calorie deficit, either through consuming less calories than you are now, increasing your activity or both. Just make sure that you are not re-consuming these calories by not paying attention to your nutrition.

In order to induce fat loss, a calorie deficit must be created (1). According to the laws of thermodynamics, there are no ifs, ands, or buts about this.

However, there are many things that affect this energy balance equation that sometimes make it seem like expectations and reality don’t quite line up. This is because this equation is more complicated than it sounds. Today we’re going to be discussing how focusing on only one half of the equation may cause some things that you likely aren’t even aware of.

Can you Lose Weight with Just Exercise?

Let’s look at some of the largest studies to date on this question:

Preeminent message: Kicking up your energy out without acknowledging your energy in rarely leads to any appreciable fat loss.

But…What? How? When?

Why?

Our #1 culprit: a subconscious increase in food intake.

In fact, we’ve known this for a long time. Over 60 years ago (1956) a study from Harvard concluded: “The regulation of food intake functions with such flexibility that an increase in energy output due to exercise is automatically followed by an equivalent increase in caloric intake” (11).

It appears that people are often completely unaware that they are eating more and that this compensation can happen even a few days after the work out (12).

This means, a hard boot camp session on Thursday may cause you to subconsciously choose a very high calorie meal off the menu at the restaurant on Saturday that you maybe wouldn’t have chosen otherwise. Or, maybe an extra serving of a pasta you cooked. Or, maybe just the leftovers on your friend’s plate that they couldn’t finish.

This is not to say that all increases in intake after exercise are a result of subconscious awareness. Certainly conscious choices play a role as well. Our culture promotes energy-dense highly delicious food as rewards for hard exercise.

Consider this with the results from a study that found that people who went for a walk and told they were "exercising" consumed 41% more calories from indulgent desserts and drinks following a post-walk lunch than those who were told they were walking for "fun"(13).

Another plausible suspect could be a decrease in activity away from structured exercise. This means moving less during the other hours of the day not spent at the gym, such as less walking, less use of stairs, less maintenance of upright posture, etc.

This seems to become more likely with stressful exercise longer in duration. For more on this, I suggest checking out my blog Adding more and more cardio activity can end up making fat loss (and life in general) MORE difficult.

Does anything work!?

Okay, okay we get it, we probably won’t lose fat by just taking up exercise. Stop with the studies! (Sorry I couldn’t help myself). What about diet? Does that even work then?

You’ll see the last study mentioned in the first chart by Jakicic and colleagues in 2011 stumbled upon physical activity being effective for weight loss only in those who are conscious of their eating behaviours. They found this by seeking out the reason for the difference between those who lost weight and those who didn’t in their population.

In addition to this, there have been a few studies which have directly compared the effects of diet and exercise (E+D) to diet alone (D) and exercise alone (E).

Let’s take a look:

Message: Nutrition, and in particular taking control over energy in, is the missing key to allowing fat loss to occur with exercise.

These studies combined would suggest that nutrition accounts for at least 70% of fat loss when combining exercise and nutrition.

You’ll notice in the Foster-Schubert, 2012 study and the Miller, 1997 meta-analysis studies that the rate of fat loss was actually not terrible for the exercise alone group. This is likely due to the fact that some and all of these individuals respectively were obese rather than overweight. The higher the percentage body fat the faster fat loss has the potential to occur. However, the rate of loss was still no match for the synergistic effects of nutrition and exercise combined.

But the chart shows that diet works alone. Is it even worth it to Exercise?

Of course you should still exercise!

Exercise is likely the single best thing you can do for your health even if no fat loss occurs.

It is not that exercise does not allow you to lose weight, it is that you do not lose weight if you leave caloric regulation completely up to your body.

Regimented exercise can typically result in 100-500 additional calories expended for the average Joe in a day. The exact amount depends on intensity, duration, experience level and current body composition, but any deficit in this range is enough to result in fat loss. However, it is clearly critical not to re-consume these calories as although it can take hours to burn them off it can take seconds to re-add them. And as we’ve learned, this is likely to happen without you even being consciously aware of it!

Other reasons to exercise while trying to lose fat are:

  • Exercise preserves resting metabolic rate compared to diet alone, which enhances the ease of maintaining your losses long term (18,19).

  • Resistance exercise preserves muscle when in a calorie deficit.

  • As shown in the above table, exercise accelerates the rate of fat loss when coupled with nutrition.

I am not the only person who believes regular exercise is the best thing you can possibly do for health and longevity. There is actually sufficient research data to support this (20,21).

"Exercise is the single most important modifiable determinant of health. There is nothing that a person could do that would help and benefit their health more than regularly exercising."

“By continually tying exercise to weight control and weight loss, we do a disservice to exercise because people won’t realize the unbelievable benefits are worth having regardless of weight and we do a disservice to weight management because people are going to try stupid things when they fail with the thing they are told is supposed to help them.”

- Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, MD (world renowned weight loss and obesity expert)

What you can do

  1. Exercise for health and well-being.

  2. When trying to lose fat be sure to acknowledge both exercise and nutrition for the fastest and best result.

  3. If you’re goal is to lose fat, create a calorie deficit, either through consuming less calories than you are now, increasing your activity or both. Just make sure that you are not re-consuming these calories by not paying attention to your nutrition. Be aware of the foods you are choosing and your portion sizes.

  4. If what you are doing isn’t working to bring you to your health and fitness goals, something needs to change. If you’re unsure what this is, get yourself a coach.

Want more on this topic? Check out this presentation by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff: Rebranding Exercise: Why Exercise is the World’s Best Drug, Just Not a Weight Loss Drug



References

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  2. Dugas LR, Harders R, Merrill S, Ebersole K, Shoham DA, Rush EC, et al. Energy expenditure in adults living in developing compared with industrialized countries: a meta-analysis of doubly labeled water studies. Am J Clin Nutr 2011 Feb;93(2):427-441.

  3. Hankinson AL, Daviglus ML, Bouchard C, Carnethon M, Lewis CE, Schreiner PJ, et al. Maintaining a high physical activity level over 20 years and weight gain. JAMA 2010 Dec 15;304(23):2603-2610.

  4. McTiernan A, Sorensen B, Irwin ML, Morgan A, Yasui Y, Rudolph RE, et al. Exercise effect on weight and body fat in men and women. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2007 Jun;15(6):1496-1512.

  5. Mekary RA, Grontved A, Despres JP, De Moura LP, Asgarzadeh M, Willett WC, et al. Weight training, aerobic physical activities, and long-term waist circumference change in men. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2015 Feb;23(2):461-467.

  6. Lee IM, Djousse L, Sesso HD, Wang L, Buring JE. Physical activity and weight gain prevention. JAMA 2010 Mar 24;303(12):1173-1179.

  7. C A, A E, JA B, WN L, G B, DM C. Fitness and the effect of exercise training on the dietary intake of healthy adolescents. International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders : journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity; 1998. p. 354-362.

  8. Wilks DC, Sharp SJ, Ekelund U, Thompson SG, Mander AP, Turner RM, et al. Objectively measured physical activity and fat mass in children: a bias-adjusted meta-analysis of prospective studies. PLoS One 2011 Feb 23;6(2):e17205.

  9. Metcalf BS, Voss LD, Hosking J, Jeffery AN, Wilkin TJ. Physical activity at the government-recommended level and obesity-related health outcomes: a longitudinal study (Early Bird 37). Arch Dis Child 2008 Sep;93(9):772-777.

  10. Jakicic JM, Otto AD, Lang W, Semler L, Winters C, Polzien K, et al. The effect of physical activity on 18-month weight change in overweight adults. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2011 Jan;19(1):100-109.

  11. MAYER J, ROY P, MITRA KP. Relation between caloric intake, body weight, and physical work: studies in an industrial male population in West Bengal. Am J Clin Nutr 1956 Mar-Apr;4(2):169-175.

  12. Stubbs RJ, Hughes DA, Johnstone AM, Whybrow S, Horgan GW, King N, et al. Rate and extent of compensatory changes in energy intake and expenditure in response to altered exercise and diet composition in humans. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 2004 Feb;286(2):R350-8.

  13. Carolina WO, Wansink B, Payne CR. Is it fun or exercise? The framing of physical activity biases subsequent snacking. Market Lett 2015 Dec;26(4):691-702.

  14. Hagan RD, Upton SJ, Wong L, Whittam J. The effects of aerobic conditioning and/or caloric restriction in overweight men and women. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1986 Feb;18(1):87-94.

  15. Wing RR, Venditti E, Jakicic JM, Polley BA, Lang W. Lifestyle intervention in overweight individuals with a family history of diabetes. Diabetes Care 1998 Mar;21(3):350-359.

  16. Foster-Schubert KE, Alfano CM, Duggan CR, Xiao L, Campbell KL, Kong A, et al. Effect of diet and exercise, alone or combined, on weight and body composition in overweight-to-obese postmenopausal women. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2012 Aug;20(8):1628-1638.

  17. Miller WC, Koceja DM, Hamilton EJ. A meta-analysis of the past 25 years of weight loss research using diet, exercise or diet plus exercise intervention. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1997 Oct;21(10):941-947.

  18. Mole PA, Stern JS, Schultz CL, Bernauer EM, Holcomb BJ. Exercise reverses depressed metabolic rate produced by severe caloric restriction. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1989 Feb;21(1):29-33.

  19. Lennon D, Nagle F, Stratman F, Shrago E, Dennis S. Diet and exercise training effects on resting metabolic rate. Int J Obes 1985;9(1):39-47.

  20. Clark JE. Diet, exercise or diet with exercise: comparing the effectiveness of treatment options for weight-loss and changes in fitness for adults (18-65 years old) who are overfat, or obese; systematic review and meta-analysis. J Diabetes Metab Disord 2015 Apr 17;14:31-015-0154-1. eCollection 2015.

  21. Blair SN, Kohl HW,3rd, Paffenbarger RS,Jr, Clark DG, Cooper KH, Gibbons LW. Physical fitness and all-cause mortality. A prospective study of healthy men and women. JAMA 1989 Nov 3;262(17):2395-2401.


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