Why Exercise Doesn’t Always Lead to Weight Loss and Why Nutrition Matters More

You may have heard that exercise alone will help you slim down and will give you a leg up on reaching your ideal body weight. Yet this is only a half-truth perpetuated by people who want to sell you an exercise program or gym membership. Never underestimate the phenomenal health benefits of exercise, but don’t count on it alone to get you to your goal weight. Still, you need exercise for health reasons – to enhance cardiovascular health and to build muscle strength and preserve muscle mass as you age and for weight loss maintenance once you lose the weight.

Plus, research shows staying physically active lowers the risk of a number of health problems that shorten lifespan, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer and that’s something to celebrate. In fact, some experts believe exercise is the best medicine that pharmaceutical companies can’t patent.  So don’t trade in your exercise shoes.

Despite the incredible health benefits of exercise, focusing on your what you eat is the best bet for fat loss. The best approach is not dieting, a bad word and bad concept, but upgrading the quality of what you eat and eating more mindfully. Diets are about deprivation and abstaining from the foods you enjoy, and that’s not sustainable, even if you’re trying to slim down. Diets don’t work for long-term weight control, and they only bring on frustration and enhance cravings.

Forget the entire concept of dieting and concentrate on upgrade the quality of what you eat. Remove ultra-processed fare from your fridge and cabinets and taper back the among of sugar in your diet. Sugar is empty calories with no nutrition, and it has a negative effect on your metabolic health. What you eat should make you feel healthy, vital, and energetic, not frustrated and deprived.

You Still Need Exercise Though

Why does exercise alone not lead to significant weight loss for most people? Research shows people compensate for the calories they burn through exercise by eating more. They’re guilty of overestimating how many calories they burn during an exercise session and eat based on these misconceptions. You might think you can justify eating something rich and sweet because you sweated so much, but the calorie burn was less than you thought. In fact, studies show people overestimate the calorie they burned during a workout by around 30%. A 45 minutes sweat session isn’t enough to justify that rich dessert!

If you try to overexercise to lose weight, your body may respond by scaling back your resting metabolic rate. It does this because it senses you’re burning so much energy that it needs to conserve what you have, especially if you restrict calories too.  When you expend too much energy, your body also has subtle ways of slowing you down. You might unconsciously move less without being aware of it. To make matters worse, you might get an appetite boost because your body senses low fuel stores and wants you to eat. Of course, this happens at a level beyond your conscious awareness.

The Bottom Line

Keep exercising! Your body needs it but be mindful of what you’re eating. It matters the most for weight control. It’s not just calories either. The composition of what you eat affects hormones like insulin that affect how much fat you store and where. For example, a high insulin level increases fat storage around the waistline and abdomen. When you eat ultra-processed carbohydrates and sugar, that raises insulin, and you end up with fat around the midline. When choosing what to eat, remember that a brownie affects your insulin level differently than a plate of greens, even if they’re equal in calories.

But there’s more good news about exercise. Not only does working out improve cardiovascular health and build muscle strength, it’s the best lifestyle factor for maintaining the weight you lose. Studies of people who lose at least 10% of their body weight show that exercise is the most important factor for maintaining the weight loss. That matters since 80% of people who lose significant weight gain it all back and sometimes more. So, nutrition reigns supreme for weight control, but you still need exercise.


Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2014 Jan-Feb; 56(4): 441-447.Published online 2013 Oct 11. doi: 10.1016/j.pcad.2013.09.012.

Villareal DT, Chode S, Parimi N et al. Weight loss, exercise, or both and physical function in obese older adults. N Engl J Med. 2011;364(13):1218-1229. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1008234.

WebMD.com. “Diet vs. Exercise: The Truth About Weight Loss”

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