“What?!” I hear you exclaim. “Of course you should exercise if you want to lose weight!” Bzzzt, wrong. Here are ten reasons why you shouldn’t exercise for weight loss (and what you should do instead):
Exercising for weight loss turns it into a chore
By choosing exercise purely as a means to reach a weight loss goal, it becomes a chore: something you have no choice but to do. I believe exercise and activity should be fun, because when you find a way to move that you enjoy you’re far more likely to stick at it long term. Long term exercise is going to offer huge benefits to your health, perhaps even more than losing a few pounds anyway.
Exercise routines are easily disrupted
Even for the most dedicated of us fitness folks, life sometimes gets in the way. Work commitments, family, pets, health, holidays: there are numerous reasons why we might have to skip a few workouts. If you are entirely reliant on exercise to offset calorie intake, disruptions to your schedule will stall or even reverse weight loss.
Exercise is not the most efficient way to lose weight
Weight loss happens when you burn more calories than you take in. Irrelevant of what the dieting industry would have you believe, there are no magic potions and pills and you don’t need slimming teas and shakes: it’s all about calories in vs calories out (except in a very small percentage of cases where medical issues/medication prevent this.) Burning calories through exercise is a) hard, requiring significant prolonged effort to burn anywhere near enough calories and b) an inaccurate science; no matter what your fancy smartwatch tells you, you probably didn’t burn anywhere near what you think you did the last time you jogged around the block.
Exercise is only responsible for a tiny amount of calorie expenditure
According to this study on physical activity induced energy expenditure (figure 2) physical activity is only responsible for a comparatively miniscule amount of calorie burn and actual exercise is a smaller component of that.
Survival mode may kick in
Our bodies are pretty clever, and there are a lot of studies out there that suggest we adapt our calorific burn based on the availability of food, our activity levels, etc: scientists call this “metabolic compensation”. This helps to prevent both weight loss, and weight gain, in the short term (it’s probably why it’s so hard to lose weight in the first place.) A 2015 study1 found that exercise alone accounted for 55-64% less weight loss than expected:
Compensation is substantial even in high-compliance conditions, resulting in far less weight change than would be expected.
Increasing exercise can make you want to eat more
For a lot of people, an increase in cardiovascular exercises (running, cycling etc) causes your hunger to ramp up massively. If you don’t have the control over your diet to accommodate this sensibly, you could find yourself undoing your hard work by guzzling down delicious carbs after every session.
Exercise can increase muscle mass, affecting the numbers
Continued consistent exercise will likely change your muscle mass, especially in those new to an exercise or previously under active. This can cause the numbers on the scale to go up before they go down, which can be demotivating. Demotivation can cause people to stop activity participation, or worse, binge eat to comfort the soul (which may cause further weight gain).
Junk food companies associate with sports for a reason
Okay, so this one is a bit ‘tinfoil hat’, but hear me out: Coca Cola sponsor the Olympic Games, as has McDonalds in the past. KFC sponsors cricket. Pepsi sponsor various American sports (Major League Soccer and Baseball to name but two). Is this to ramp up that image of “do some sports and eat/drink what you like” (meanwhile obesity rates skyrocket)? Associating with sports, something “healthy”, changes our perception of a brand, and we don’t even realise it’s happening. That’s before we get into the frankly scary psychological impacts of brand awareness, advertising, etc. I’m very much a cynic, and believe that these brands support sports because the alternative in weight loss is reduced calorific intake, and it’s very hard to fit in regular consumption of junk / fast foods into a low calorie diet.
Exercise becomes pointless when you reach your goal
If we assume you manage to beat the odds and become one of the few people who do manage to reach a weight loss goal using exercise alone, it suddenly becomes surplus to requirements: why bother to do something you only took part in to reach a given number on the scale? Like seeing exercise as a chore, this attitude would likely cause a rebound effect as soon as participation is stopped.
Exercise is so much more important than weight loss alone
Exercise is important what ever your size and end goal, and should be encouraged in everyone. Regular activity improves your sleep, your concentration, your happiness levels, your sex drive, your likelihood of living into old age, your immune system, your energy levels, your skin, your body composition, your ability to deal with stress and your posture. It reduces your risk of diabetes and heart disease, helps alleviate anxiety, strengthens your bones, and just generally improves your quality of life. All bloody brilliant reasons, none of which are related to weight loss.
So what does help us lose weight?
A calorie controlled diet. That is the be-all and end-all of weight loss. Irrespective of how you approach it: keto, high carb, low carb, atkins, cabbage soup, cambridge, meal replacement, slimming world, weight watchers, macro counting… the list is endless, but they all rely on a decrease in calorific intake. None of these diets are necessary, of course, you can achieve the same thing with a basic food diary (pen and paper) or a calorie tracking app on your phone.
There are lots of calculators online which give you a rough estimate of the amount of calories you need per day (e.g. Active.com Calorie Calculator or BBC iWonder ‘How Many Calories Do I Need?’ calculator) To lose weight, you simply deduct around 500 calories from your total estimated calorie needs, and eat that amount of calories per day.
Monitor your weight by weighing 2-3 times per week and averaging the figures. If you are losing at a steady pace of 1-2lbs per week, carry on. If a 500 calorie reduction isn’t working, take off another 100 calories. If you’re losing too fast, add calories back in. Do not crash diet or go lower than 1200 calories per day. Do not maintain a low calorie diet for a prolonged period of time and ensure you gradually add calories back in at the end of the dieting period so as not to rebound, regaining your lost weight.
As discovered earlier, exercise is responsible for only a tiny fraction of our energy expenditure. However, the food and drinks we consume are entirely responsible for our calorie intake, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out what is easier to control: the impact of 10% of something, or the impact of 100%.
Or, of course, you could learn to love the body you’re in. But that can be easier said than done.
1 Predicting adult weight change in the real world: a systematic review and meta-analysis accounting for compensatory changes in energy intake or expenditure. (Dhurandhar EJ, Kaiser KA, Dawson JA, Alcorn AS, Keating KD, Allison DB.)
Lead photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande