Will Exercise Make Me Lose Weight?

exercise and weight loss

As a nutritional coach, a very popular question I receive is whether one has to exercise to lose weight when tracking macros (flexible dieting).

The simple answer is NO. Exercise isn’t required to lose weight and you can be successful with flexible dieting even if you don’t do any exercise.

In fact, this is one of the biggest and oldest myths surrounding weight loss, which can leave many powerless to ever think they can make a change because of their loathing of exercise or their physical capacity to do much exercise.

Here’s why exercise in itself doesn’t produce weight loss.

Your TDEE is the Key to Weight Loss

All of the many dieting trends and fads boil down to just one simple truth. If you eat less energy than your body requires during a given day, weight loss is likely.

Of course, there are caveats to this, like people with metabolic disorders or people who have had their weight loss stall because they have been starving themselves. But, for 98% of us, the math holds true.

Your TDEE or Total Daily Energy Expenditure is how much energy your body burns during a 24 hour period. I won’t go into how it’s calculated as we’ve covered that here, but, it can be calculated with or without exercise.

Eat moderately less than your TDEE and you’ll lose weight, eat more than your TDEE and you’ll gain weight. Exercise doesn’t have to be part of the equation. In fact, the major thing exercise does for weight loss is it just gives us the ability to eat more and still lose weight.

However, it can also backfire and here’s why.

exercise makes you hungrier

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Exercise Increases Hunger

When you exercise your body seeks to make up for the extra calorie burn by increasing your sense of hunger.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this, right?

You may have had a day where you are out all day shopping, walking around, or perhaps at the beach swimming and such. You probably felt so hungry. In contrast, you’ve probably have had days where you didn’t do much other than reading a book or watching TV. On these days you probably weren’t nearly as hungry.

Exercise not only increases our metabolisms but it also increases our appetites. This can be dangerous if you aren’t aware of your TDEE. It can be easy to “pig out” on pizza thinking, “I exercised, so I can afford to eat this.”

While this is partially true, splurges still have to fit within your TDEE or you will gain weight even though you exercised.

BUT, the benefits of exercise make it a good habit to practice, but not a necessity for weight loss to occur.

We have an overwhelming amount of evidence that supports the fact that moderate exercise is good for your overall health and longevity.

Humans were designed for movement and here’s why.

Better heart health: Exercise strengthens your heart muscle1 and keeps it in good working order as you age by reducing the risk of arterial plaque build-up, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

Stronger bones: Weight-bearing and impact exercises cause the bones to absorb calcium making them stronger. This can protect against osteoporosis2 later in life.

Better endurance: Exercise makes everyday tasks like climbing stairs, doing household chores, and taking care of the family easier. It’s no fun being out of breath after one flight of stairs or being too tired to play with the kids or grandkids for more than a few minutes. Exercise makes life easier by strengthening our endurance to do more without wearing out so quickly.

Better mood: Exercise causes “feel good” endorphins to be released in our brains. These endorphins help us to feel motivated and have a better outlook on life3. Even when I don’t feel like exercising, I know that after it’s over, I always feel so much better.

Lower risk of disease: Besides heart disease, exercise is also shown to protect against certain cancers, stroke, diabetes, and much more. In fact, recent studies have shown that the longer we sit, the shorter we live4.

And another great benefit of exercise is… Drum roll…

You Can Eat More Calories if you Exercise!

The more you exercise, the more you can eat!

While this can be a negative thing, it also can be positive as long as your eating is restricted to your exercise adjusted TDEE. I like to eat and I enjoy good food, which is part of my personal motivation to exercise. I know that if I burn 800 calories during a hike, that’s 800 more calories I can enjoy that day. The key here is knowing your goal TDEE and being true to it. By tracking your macros you can enjoy the extra food exercise allows without going overboard.

Say without exercise you can eat 1700 calories to lose about 1 pound per week of fat. Now say you go to the gym and burn 500 calories. You can now eat 2200 calories and still burn that 1 pound of fat per week. The more you work out the more you can eat on that given day.

But, exercise doesn’t mean you can eat however much you want. You have to be willing to put a little effort into tracking the calorie burn of the exercise using a wearable like an Apple Watch and tracking your food intake with a good macro tracking app.

Some may not be able to exercise…

As I said earlier, some may not have the physical capacity to exercise. This can be due to severe obesity, physical and mental disabilities, or even social anxiety.

All is not lost if you can’t exercise for any of those reasons or others. All that you have to do is find your weight loss TDEE and be true to it by using the methods we teach with counting macros. You will be able to lose and you don’t have to exercise.

Exercise isn’t required but beneficial

Exercise is not necessary for weight loss but it is beneficial for your overall good health and longevity. So, exercise as you see fit, but don’t expect it to produce weight loss. Instead, count on your TDEE to do that.

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    Scientific References:

  1. Mellett, L. H., & Bousquet, G. (2013). Heart-healthy exercise. Circulation, 127(17), e571-e572.
  2. Andreoli, A., Celi, M., Volpe, S. L., Sorge, R., & Tarantino, U. (2012). Long-term effect of exercise on bone mineral density and body composition in post-menopausal ex-elite athletes: a retrospective study. European journal of clinical nutrition, 66(1), 69-74.
  3. Wipfli, B., Landers, D., Nagoshi, C., & Ringenbach, S. (2011). An examination of serotonin and psychological variables in the relationship between exercise and mental health. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 21(3), 474-481.
  4. Van der Ploeg, H. P., Chey, T., Korda, R. J., Banks, E., & Bauman, A. (2012). Sitting time and all-cause mortality risk in 222 497 Australian adults. Archives of internal medicine, 172(6), 494-500.
  5. Lead Image Credit
Ted Kallmyer is an ISSA certified Specialist in Fitness Nutrition and is our lead macro coach. If you need help reaching your weight loss/fitness goals see our personal coaching options.
Last Updated: October 10, 2019