Should I focus mostly on exercise to lose weight?

Nobody is going to tell you that exercise is not a good thing. It offers many health benefits—better sleep,reduced stress,improved strength and muscle tone,and it puts you in a better mood.It also burns calories.So it makes sense that increasing physical activity be part of the weight-loss formula.But exercise as a weight-loss method has limitations.This post explores the effectiveness of exercise and its role in weight loss and maintenance.

Kernels of Truth

Numerous kernels of truth support the myth regarding exercise and weight loss. Let’s start with the most obvious one: the average North American does not get enough exercise.We are all daily users of a variety of work-saving devices,like garage door openers,television remote controls, cordless telephones, and riding lawn mowers.A study done in Australia showed that we would need to walk 10 miles a day to make up for the decrease in the number of calories burned by daily activities since the 1800s. Most people do not spend their free time being physically active.In 1997,less than one-third of adults in the United States got the recommended amount of physical activity and 40% of adults engaged in virtually no leisure-time physical activity. Lack of exercise contributes to weight gain.Weight goes up when more calories are consumed than spent through activity.

Beyond its role in weight control, exercise improves overall health. According to the Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health,benefits of regular physical activity include a lower risk of

  1. • Heart disease
  2. • High blood pressure or high cholesterol
  3. • Premature death
  4. • Colon and breast cancer
  5. • Diabetes Exercise has numerous other benefits beyond protection from diseases.

It improves the health of muscles,bones,and joints.People who exercise perform better at recreational activities and even at work.Regular exercise also reduces stress and improves mental well-being. Depression and anxiety are less likely to occur in people who exercise regularly.


Losing fat and building muscle will help tone the body and put you into a smaller clothing size because a pound of muscle takes up a lot less space than a pound of fat.Picture a 1-pound package of lean meat or chicken from the grocery store; now picture four sticks of butter.They each weigh 1 pound,but the butter takes up more space than the meat.

The Whole Truth

Weight Gain Is Also Due to Overeating

While reduced physical activity is a significant contributor to weight gain,we are also eating more.The average American adult eats about 300 more calories per day than in 1970.In studies that have looked at where those calories are coming from, mixed grain dishes like pizza and tacos and calorie-containing beverages except milk top the list. Experts agree—the combination of eating more and moving less is behind the weight gain of the past thirty years. Weight loss and weight gain are explained by the balance between calories in and calories out.You gain weight if you take in more calories than you burn,and you lose weight if you burn more calories than you take in.


To lose 1 pound,you need to create a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories. Over a week,this translates into 500 calories a day.You can create this calorie deficit through a combination of increased physical activity and cutting back on food.But how much can exercise contribute? Can it be an effective stand-alone weight-loss solution ?

Food Counts

Exercise alone as a weight-loss method is particularly ineffective without paying attention to food intake,and increasing activity is not a free pass to ignore eating habits. People who begin an exercise program often overlook the food side of the calories in/calories out equation. Some people even increase the amount of food they eat because they think they are burning more calories than they really are. The end result—weight gain rather than weight loss!

Going to the gym without a similar effort on the food front is sure to backfire. Numerous research studies show that it is common for people who are trying to lose weight to overestimate their physical activity—they think that they worked longer and harder than they really did. People also underestimate the amount of food or calories they are eating. So the difference between calories in from food and calories out from exercise is smaller than they think. It is all too easy to overeat any time spent in exercise.For example, it takes about an hour on the treadmill for a 170-pound man to burn off a medium-size bagel (without butter or cream cheese),a few cookies,or a donut. A 150-pound woman doing a 30-minute workout at a circuit training gym like Curves burns about 150 calories,or the equivalent of a 12-ounce glass of orange juice.That’s not a lot of food.

It Takes a Lot of Exercise Burning enough calories to lose weight takes quite a bit of exercise. It takes about 51⁄2 calories of activity per pound of body weight for a person to maintain his or her current body weight. For an adult weighing 170 pounds,that is 925 to 950 calories in daily activity.To lose 1 pound of fat through exercise alone, a person needs to burn an additional 3,500 calories. So in order for that 170-pound adult to lose 2 pounds per week without making any dietary changes,he would need to continue doing everything that he is currently doing—plus walk an additional10 miles per day (that is 70 miles a week).That is a lot of exercise and time! Needless to say, walking is still a very good idea, as this post will show.


If your goal is to lose weight by playing basketball,it will take more than five hours of active playing to lose a pound. It is extremely difficult to exercise enough on a consistent basis to lose even 1 pound of fat without making any changes to your diet.


You just learned that it takes a lot of exercise to burn a lot of calories.

The Role of Exercise in Weight Loss

Mathematically you can design an exercise schedule for yourself that burns enough calories to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week.While this works on paper,the level of exercise commitment such a regimen requires is not sustainable for the vast majority of people,especially if it is started all at once.Several panels of experts have looked at all of the evidence and reached the conclusion that while exercise is extremely important, it does not lead to significant weight loss on its own.

This does not mean that it is a waste of time to exercise.Exercise is one of the healthiest things that you can do for yourself.Even a moderate activity like walking for thirty minutes every day at a comfortable pace will burn an additional 200 calories.True,this is not enough activity to cause a dramatic drop in your weight,but it willgive your weight loss a boost. Additionally, the few hundred calories that are burned with regular physical activity compensate for adding a bit more food to the eating plan during weight loss. That can make the difference between a diet that feels as if it’s depriving and a weight-loss program that is livable.

It is important to have realistic expectations about what exercise can and cannot do for weight loss. During the early days and weeks of weight loss, scheduling exercise is a way to help organize the day. About 200 to 300 calories burned during exercise can give weight loss a bit of a push.Exercise also helps boost mood and helps control stress, as noted earlier in the post. At a time when living a healthier lifestyle is foremost in your mind,physical activity can be a bright spot in the day.

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