Why Exercise Equals Weight Loss is a Myth

exercise and weight loss

A popular question I receive is whether one has to exercise to lose weight or do IIFYM (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

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 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 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 read a book or watch 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 artirial plaque bulid-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 quick.

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.

You can eat more: 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.

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 reason 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 flexible dieting. You will be able to lose and you don’t have to exercise.

The Bottom Line

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

6 Comments

  1. Daniel Wagle

    Why cannot it be pointed out that the drastic calorie cutting often necessitated by taking a just diet no exercise approach to weight loss also makes a person very hungry? It is very important to count calories while you’re trying to exercise your weight down. But instead of cutting calories, just don’t increase calorie intake while you greatly increase exercise. When I took the just diet, very little exercise approach I didn’t find that not exercising very much decreased hunger at all. While I exercised my weight down I didn’t feel hungry because I could eat more and still lose weight. I still count calories and exercise everyday and I haven’t gained 1 pound back in 5 years and even lost more.

    Reply
    • Ted

      Great perspective Daniel. Although, with flexible dieting the calorie reductions are much less than they are with traditional diets, so it is more doable . Most people who have switched from other diets to flexible dieting have trouble eating as much as flexible dieting prescribes and this is because other diets cut calories too drastically.

      Reply
      • Daniel Wagle

        Perhaps you could say that exercise will often not help if a person pays no attention to their diet. If a person does flexible dieting, or just counts calories as I do, then it usually will help, either by speeding up weight loss or making the diet less severe and sustainable to lose weight. You just have to know how to fit it in with calorie counting or flexible dieting. Just not increasing intake from what was previously maintaining one’s weight without exercise should usually work when increasing exercise. I actually found I could increase my intake while I was losing weight and still lose weight because I really did greatly increase my exercise level. One person I know lost a lot of weight, mainly by calorie counting, but with little exercise. He did lose weight, but he isn’t nearly as thin as I am and he can consume only 1/2 the number of calories I can consume. I lost about 105 pounds and he lost about 80. We are both maintaining our weight loss.

        Reply
  2. David

    Great article Ted! Good reminders to eat, exercise, but don’t use it to just rely on losing weight or to just eat more food. Keep up the good work!!

    Reply
    • David

      Meant to say don’t use exercise as main source to lose weight or reason to eat more.

      Reply
    • Ted

      Thanks for the feedback David!

      Reply