Exercise Alone Won’t Help You Lose Weight

North Memorial Better Health Blog Author Logo
March 30, 2017

We’re in a time period where losing weight is synonymous with working out, but as a trainer, I tell my clients, if you’re only working out to burn calories or lose weight, you’re missing out.


Over the years, we’ve heard a lot of incomplete stories about weight loss. Schools, trainers, and popular marketing – everything from Fitbit and fitness trackers to nutrition labels and gym banners – focus on calories, which leaves us thinking burning calories is our only option for weight loss, and the only way to burn calories efficiently is through exercising.

The Calorie Conundrum

First, a little-known fact: While most people think exercise or physical activity is where you burn the most calories, some studies show we really only burn about 10 to 30 percent of our calories through physical activity.  This means you can’t necessarily get your desired results by just working out or upping overall activity. We have to look at exercise and physical activity as a means to improve overall health and performance. But doesn’t mean we should stop exercising—it is still an important piece of the puzzle.

We know physical activity can cause a lot of change in your appearance – everything from loss of fat and weight to gain of muscle. But what’s not very clear among researchers is why there’s a lot of variance from person to person. This is why we can’t simply chalk up America’s obesity epidemic to low physical activity and excess consumption of calories.

So why does everyone suggest exercise for weight loss? Well, this is likely a result of the misinterpretation of studies like this one, which correlates the benefits of exercise to weight loss and doesn’t take body composition into consideration. Correlation is not causation. This is why in most long-term studies, researchers have shown exercise alone only leads to a marginal amount of weight. However, it was also shown those who exercised more and increased their overall physical activity saw other health benefits, including improvements in both mental health – happiness, ability to manage stress – and physical health, such as lower blood pressure and cholesterol. People who did not also make changes in their nutritional habits only saw modest amounts of weight loss. So, if it’s not exercise, then it must be calories in and calories out, right?

Well, not exactly. The old rule of thumb essentially states, that a caloric deficit of 3,500 calories per week (or 500 calories per day) would allow for losing a pound per week and adding 3,500 calories per week (500 per day) meant adding a pound of mass per day.

But we’ve learned that the “calories in, calories out” method is only a very crude predictor of losing or gaining mass (including muscle – and you don’t want to lose that). The human body is a very adaptable and dynamic system that can change frequently, so the “calories in, calories out” only scratches the surface.

Researchers are also learning that cutting too many calories is not only detrimental to your ability to improve performance and fuel physical activities, but, over a long period of time, it can stunt your metabolism and cancels out the small benefits you do see in exercise for weight loss.

Researchers are also learning that cutting too many calories is not only detrimental to your ability to improve performance and fuel physical activities, but, over a long period of time, it can stunt your metabolism and cancels out the small benefits you do see in exercise for weight loss.

The Key: Basal Metabolic Rate
So what does help you lose weight? Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). There are multiple ways to calculate BMR—all theoretical, of course—but the most popular way is by using the Mifflin St. Jeor Equation, which says:

For men:
BMR = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) + 5

For women:
BMR = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) – 161

Your basal metabolic rate is the largest system you fuel everyday, a system whose functions are essential to life. If improvements in BMR lead to the most weight loss, you’re probably already asking, “So how do I do improve it already?” A combination of exercise, nutrition, and rest seems to be best, but there’s evidence that too much of any of them can actually stunt BMR.


Let’s break it down:

Exercise and physical activity. Again, the purpose of this is not to burn calories, but to improve your athleticism. A well-rounded exercise or fitness program should be all-inclusive, with exercises to improve strength, stamina, endurance, and more.

Nutrition. A well-rounded nutrition program should fuel and improve performance and aid in recovery, while not adding body fat. It has the right balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and meets your micronutrient needs—that is, the vitamins and minerals that ward off disease.

Rest/Recovery. It’s essential to slow down after exercising. Too much physical activity leads to consuming more calories, and spending more time in recovery. Slowing down decreases the body’s need for more calorie intake and increases the body’s want to fuel itself off of your stored body fat.

So what’s the right balance? The scientific community hasn’t figured that out quite yet. But researchers have concluded people who lose weight and keep the weight off have a few things in common:

  • You do something physically active at a higher, or brisk, intensity. This is not synonymous with “leave you on your back gasping for air” exercise methods, and simply something more active and taps into what’s considered “work.” Work can be exercise at a gym, recreational activities, or other movement. You want to target an elevated heart rate around 70 to 80 percent of your Heart Rate Max.
  • You stay away from processed, higher-fat foods, such as fast food or deep-fried foods.
  • You don’t consume food in excess, but you’re not heavily restricting it, either. It’s a balancing act.
  • Lastly, you exercise regularly and consistently. Exercising twice a week is better than exercising six days in one week and taking the next two off.

So what’s the bottom line? You can’t out-exercise a bad diet and you can’t diet your way to the body you want. It’s a delicate balance. Treat your body right.

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