Does exercise help you lose weight?


If you are about to embark on a weight loss journey and are wondering about whether exercise can help you lose weight, this article provides you with the research on exercise and weight loss, along with some tips to use exercise effectively on your weight loss journey.

Does exercise help with weight loss?

You’ve probably heard people cite weight loss as one of the key benefits of exercise. However, research indicates that exercise alone may have less impact on weight loss than you’d imagine. For example, in a study where individuals previously expended 500 calories through exercise per week and then had to expend approximately 2000 calories per week for 16-months, whilst eating as they wished, at the end of the study the men had lost on average 5.2 kg and the women 0.4 kg (Donnelly et al. 2003). Another review of multiple studies on exercise completed over just under 8 months found that the men lost an average 2.6 kg and women 3 kg (Garrow et al. 1995).

Is the weight loss from exercise as much as you’d perhaps expected?! Especially considering that expending 2000 calories from exercise per week would take you a considerable amount of time! Let’s assess some of the reasons why exercise may not be as effective for weight loss as perhaps it is perceived.

Why exercise may not be as helpful for weight loss as perceived:

1. The body reduces overall energy output

The human body is incredibly clever and prioritises survival. When you lose weight, the body adapts by trying to conserve energy. Research shows that when individuals increase their exercise activity intensity, they may reduce their overall energy output throughout the day to compensate (Pontzer et al. 2016). However, individuals who keep their exercise at a moderate intensity, may have a higher energy output throughout the whole day (Pontzer et al. 2016). This will obviously vary depending upon the individual, however it is something to be mindful of.

2. You compensate by consuming more calories

Exercise can increase levels of hunger and therefore you may consume more food, offsetting your calorie deficit. Research indicates that individuals may be “compensators” or “non-compensators” – a compensator being someone who loses less weight than predicted and a non-compensator who loses more than or equal to the amount of weight predicted (King et al. 2008). Compensators have been shown to increase their energy intake by 268-455 cals/day, whereas non-compensators may decrease their energy intake -130-486 cals/day (King et al. 2008). This difference in energy intake meant that the weight loss ranged from -14.7 kg to an increase of 1.7 kg!

Research shows that that for every 60 minutes of additional exercise performed, individuals may consume an average of 292 extra calories (Sonneville et al. 2008). Potentially, the more exercise you do, the more you may compensate, with a 6 month study showing that the highest intensity group actually lost the least weight (Church et al. 2009).

3. Exercise burns less calories than you imagine

For example, a 145 pound female, may expect to burn only 300 calories from a 30 min run. The number of calories burned will vary depending on the modality, duration and intensity. For many people, the number of calories burned is likely significantly less than expected. Additionally, the use of trackers and machines at gyms to estimate calories are notoriously inaccurate.

Does exercise help sustained weight loss?

Absolutely! Firstly, if you exercise regularly, you will be significantly healthier than if you do not exercise. More exercise is associated with better health and significantly reduced risk of chronic disease. Whilst losing excess weight will make you healthier, exercise provides its own benefits which makes it one of the most potent tools in your health toolbox.

Secondly, if you want to maintain your weight loss, then exercise is integral to your success. A large-scale study which assessed individuals over 8 years showed that the weight-loss maintainers engaged in more overall activity per week than the weight-loss regainers and that the difference was significantly more when it came to doing regular higher intensity activity (McGuire et al. 1999). This is supported by results from the National Weight Control Registry, who conducted the largest ever study on individuals who were successful at long-term weight loss – on average, individuals who maintained weight loss expended approximately 2800 calories per week, with cycling being the most medium-intensity activity and weight lifting the most high intensity activity reported (Klem et al. 1997).

The issue is that many individuals do not stick to exercising long term with research indicating that up to 72% of individuals discontinue with exercise after completing an initial 12-14 week protocol.

Tips for exercise and weight loss

1. Start now but start slow
Some exercise is better than no exercise for your weight loss journey so start now. If you start slow then you increase your chances of incremental progress, sense of achievement and long-term adherence. Long-term adherence to exercise is key for weight loss maintenance and health. By starting slow, you reduce your chance of injury and being unable to exercise. Also, you reduce throwing your energy balance off too greatly, being overly hungry and therefore over consuming calories.

2. Use diet for the calorie deficit
View the exercise for long term investment in your health and weight loss maintenance and your diet for creating the calorie deficit. This way you will be more likely to enjoy the exercise and adhere to it long term. With a calorie deficit from nutrition you have something more objective to adapt from.

3. Choose exercise you enjoy
If you hate running, no need to run. There are so many different forms of exercise, I truly believe that everyone can find something that they enjoy. Think about what exercise you enjoyed when you were a kid and maybe start with that.

4. Make a plan that is realistic
Plans are instrumental to success as well as adherence and providing a framework from which you can adapt. If you haven’t exercised for years, be realistic with how much you can fit in. Shoot for a couple of shorter sessions, rather than one longer one.

5. Schedule it in
Like you would a meeting. If you are going to stick to something consistently, it needs to be part of your schedule. If it is a class, book it before, if it is at home, tell your family and book out a room or outside space for you at that time. Keep the schedule regular where possible to save you time and energy.

6. Don’t replace calories for it
You don’t know how many calories you’ve burnt, so no need to estimate. It takes the fun out of exercise! Plus, your calorie deficit from your diet takes care of what needs to be done for your weight loss.

7. Be accountable
Get a friend, family member or nutritionist/health coach, to check in with you about meeting your exercise schedule and share with them how it is going. If it isn’t working for you, then having some help to make some tweaks is key for you keeping on going rather than giving up!

8. Still include and prioritise daily activity
Tracking your daily steps is an objective way to ensure that your daily activity does not drop, even if you are doing structured exercise. Our general daily movement is often overlooked as an important tool to support weight loss. These days, tracking steps is easy, wearable devices, mobile phones etc can play an important role in establishing daily activity.

Key takeaways:

Create an appropriate calorie deficit through a personalised nutrition plan to lose weight: There are many ways to create a calorie deficit and to adhere to the deficit and make it achievable in the long term, it needs to be right for you. So, fear not, if you love carbs, you don’t need to deprive yourself of carbs, and if you hate fasting, you don’t need to fast. Following a nutritional plan that is unique to you is the difference between struggling with a standard “diet plan” and achieving your goals effectively.

The combination of diet + exercise is superior in the long term: and longer-term weight loss success is increased when diet and physical activity are increased (Johns et al. 2014). Setting yourself a realistic exercise plan you can stick to will increase your chances of long-term success as well as ensuring that you live life at your healthiest – which you deserve.

Consistently follow a structured plan: both for you to have something clear to adhere to in the first place and to have something to manipulate and adapt depending upon your outcomes. Forget relying on motivation when you have the plan to follow. Take the time to create a personalised nutrition, lifestyle and exercise plan and remove the guesswork so you can achieve your weight loss goals.

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    1. Donnelly et al. (2003). Effects of a 16-month randomised controlled exercise trial on body weight and composition in young, overweight men and women.
    2. Garrow et al. (1999). Meta-analysis: effect of exercise, with or without dieting, on the body composition of overweight subjects.
    3. Pontzer et al. (2016). Constrained total energy expenditure and metabolic adaptation to physical activity in adult humans.
    4. Sonneville et al. (2008). Total energy intake, adolescent discretionary behaviours and energy gap.
    5. Church et al. (2009). Changes in weight, waist circumference and compensatory responses with different doses of exercise among sedentary, overweight postmenopausal women.
    6. McGuire et al. (1999). Behavioural strategies of individuals who have maintained long-term weight losses.
    7. Klem et al. (1997). A descriptive study of individuals successful at long-term maintenance of substantial weight loss.
    8. Champagne et al. (2011). Dietary intakes associated with successful weight loss and maintenance during the Weight Loss Maintenance Trial.
    9. Johns et al. (2014). Diet or exercise interventions vs combined behavioural weight management programs: a systematic review and meta-analysis of direct comparisons.