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Crushing the Myth of Exercise and Weight Loss

Written by Ali Donahue
Crushing the Myth of Exercise and Weight Loss

Quick Take

It takes a long time for us to let go of familiar ideas. Case in point? That exercise directly leads to weight loss. It’s just not true — and continuing to believe it can make weight loss more challenging. Here’s how to let go of this myth, and what to do instead.

On this page

Does exercise lead to weight loss?

Why doesn’t exercise lead to weight loss?

Why does everyone still say exercise and weight loss are connected?

What else is exercise good for?

So how do I lose weight?

Key Takeaways

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Does exercise lead to weight loss?

Despite the millions of annual New Year’s resolutions to hit the gym and lose 10 pounds, the answer is no. 

Exercise doesn’t have much of a direct impact on weight loss. 

Even though reality-tv weight loss shows say so…

Even though you’ve heard success stories about people who trained for marathons and lost 50 pounds…

Even though your doctor might say so, and your trainer, and your friends, and your mom…

Exercise has not been proven to directly lead to weight loss.

Why doesn’t exercise lead to weight loss?

The research points to three reasons for the complicated connection between exercise and weight loss.

1. Our physical movement uses the smallest amount of the calories we eat.

The majority of what we eat goes to run the basic functions of the body. Breathing. Pumping blood. Sending electrical signals around the brain and body. 

This is called your basal metabolic rate. It uses 60 to 75 percent of the food you eat! Another 10 percent goes to power digestion.

That means you use about 15 to 30 percent of what you eat on physical activity — and that includes fidgeting and walking around. Time at the gym uses just a fraction of that 15 to 30 percent available for physical activity. Exercise just doesn’t burn off that much food energy.

2. Exercise doesn’t burn off much energy.

It is very, very hard to exercise enough to lower how many calories your body keeps. 

The National Institutes of Health has a tool called Body Weight Planner. It provides calculations for weight loss: how much you’d need to exercise and eat in order to lose weight over a certain period of time. 

Imagine a 160 lb woman, average height, who exercises moderately. She wants to lose 15 pounds, and she’d like to do it in two months. 

If and only if she starts running at medium intensity for an hour every single day for 60 days, then she is likely to lose 15 pounds.

But that’s running every day for an hour for 60 days. That’s not taking days off, not going at a slower pace, not ever eating more than a certain calorie limit (in fact, she would need to eat less than she normally would). 

In other words, you have to put in heroic, robotic, rigidly consistent effort to make exercise affect weight loss. Life does not work like that. Our bodies don’t work like that.

3. We have this automatic habit called “compensatory behaviors.”

After we exercise, we tend to do things to replace the food energy that we burned. We might eat more after a workout. We might move less. Both of these things can “cancel out” any calories we used up in exercise.

Why does everyone still say exercise and weight loss are connected?

Old ideas die hard. That’s the simple answer. But there’s a more interesting answer, too.  

Some research has shown that exercise can raise your “basal metabolic rate.” That’s how much energy you need simply to exist. Raising your rate has been shown to help keep lost weight off, or prevent the gain of new weight.

Raising your metabolic rate depends on the kind of exercise you do, how often you do it, and other factors in your health. It can help to work with a trainer or other professional who is educated in the complexities of exercise and metabolic rates.

What else is exercise good for?

Get ready for a long list!! Exercise supports:

  • Mental health
  • Cognitive health
  • Sleep quality
  • Cancer prevention
  • Daily energy
  • Libido
  • Immune function
  • Heart health (including blood pressure)
  • Joint health (aka arthritis)
  • Diabetes prevention and management
  • Life span extension 

Exercise is a pillar of health. It doesn’t directly lead to weight loss, but it serves you in almost every other way. 

You’ve surely heard this before, but we’ll say it again: Going for a daily walk is an excellent way to get movement into your days. Start where you are, with what you can do. That’s the best thing you can do!

So how do I lose weight?

Changing what you eat is a direct path to weight loss. 

Most of us are looped into a processed-food diet that’s high in sugar, salt, and fat. Meats and other animal products make up the bulk of our daily plate. These foods are not friendly to weight loss. They deeply affect the hormones that control our appetite, sense of fullness, and blood sugar. (Read more on that here.)

In our work, we have found that nutrient-dense, plant-based diets help people lose weight. This doesn’t mean you swap in a vegan tv-dinner for a meat tv-dinner! Processed foods are processed foods.

When you switch to whole-food, plant-based eating, you help your body maintain healthy blood sugar levels and healthy levels of digestion-related hormones. We have seen that this is the best weight loss diet.

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The 4-week meal plan for weight loss (and the fresh, plant-based meals!) coaches you in lifestyle changes, as well. People tend to lose 10 to 12 pounds with this Bundle.

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At the same time, how you eat affects your weight. Plant-based meals at regular intervals, with lots of water and snacks in between, helps your body operate in a way that sheds unneeded weight. 

Quality sleep, regular exercise, and practices that feed your emotional health (such as gratitude rituals, spiritual traditions, or time with a supportive community) also sustain healthy weight loss.

In the end, exercise alone isn’t weight-loss magic. You are more than a kettle-bell squat! You are a whole body and a whole person. To keep the weight off for good, you need weight loss efforts that support all of who you are. 

Key Takeaways

  • Exercise doesn’t lead directly to weight loss.
  • Exercise can help keep lost weight off and prevent gaining new weight.
  • Exercise supports our health in almost every other way.
  • Plant-based eating and lifestyle habits are more directly tied to weight loss.

Ditch diets and lose the weight for good!

Download our FREE Ultimate (little) Guide to Weight Loss and live a life free from food obsession.


Becky Karush is a writer, copywriter, and family woman. She came up through newspapers and magazines, including Disney FamilyFun and Martha Stewart Whole Living, with road trips to teaching and farming. She’s run BeckyK Creative Marketing since 2012. She hosts and produces READ TO ME, a literary podcast that ends the cult of the critic and surfaces the power and beauty in great writing. 

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