It’s no surprise that exercise is one of the first things we turn to when we decide it’s time to lose weight.
We easily sign up for this gym membership and commit to extra walks with the dog, believing that if we get enough exercise the number on the scale will go down.
Perhaps also unsurprisingly, many of us get discouraged when we follow this routine for months and see no change on the scale. That’s why I’m often asked: does exercise make you lose weight or is it just dieting?
Like all things related to weight loss, the short answer is: it’s complicated.
What does the research say about exercise and weight?
There have been several studies above last 70 years examining the role exercise plays in weight management. Recent research on the subject primarily found that exercise alone had minimal impact on weight loss.
This includes a meta study reviewing all relevant studies in the fieldwhich found that those who exercised alone lost minimal weight compared to those who exercised and also reduced their energy intake.
A 2018 study found that substantial weight loss was unlikely when participants followed minimum guidelines for physical activity. This prescribes 150 minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity for 75 minutes per week. Overall exercise volume had to be significantly above recommended minimum levels in order to achieve significant weight loss without dieting.
Studies show that you need about 60 minutes of moderate physical activity a day to achieve significant weight loss.
But before we cancel that gym membership, we also need to consider the large body of research confirming that focusing on exercise is essential as part of any weight loss program.
Exercise helps maintain weight over the long term
Exercise improve your body composition and prevent muscle decline. Our metabolic rate – the amount of energy we burn at rest – is determined by the amount of muscle and fat we have, and muscle is more metabolically active than fat, which means it burns more kilojoules.
Relying solely on diet for weight loss will reduce muscle as well as body fat, which will slow down your metabolism. It is therefore essential to ensure that you have incorporated enough appropriate exercises into your weight loss plan to maintain your muscle mass reserves.
It is also important to incorporate resistance training for strength building. This doesn’t mean you have to be at the gym every day. Just two days a week and in the comfort of your own home is perfectly fine.
Research confirms that moderate-volume resistance training (three sets of ten reps for eight exercises) is just as effective as high-volume resistance training (five sets of ten reps for eight exercises) for maintaining lean body mass and muscles when following a diet that incorporates moderate calorie restriction.
Studies also show that physical activity and exercise have a substantial effect on preventing weight regain after weight loss. A longer term study found that those who maintained high levels of exercise (expending more than 10,500 kilojoules or 2,500 calories each week, such as walking 75 minutes per day) maintained significantly greater weight loss than participants doing less exercise.
Exercise has overall health benefits
Before you start seeing exercise results on the scale, you’re almost guaranteed to experience the many physical and mental health benefits that come with exercise.
Even low levels of exercise reduce your chance to developing diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research shows that exercise is just as important as weight loss for improving health, as most risk markers for diabetes and heart disease associated with obesity can be improved by exercise, even if you don’t lose no weight.
A physically active and obese person can be considered metabolically healthy if they maintain good blood pressure, cholesterol and insulin levels. There is good evidence show that the risk of early death associated with obesity is greatly reduced or eliminated by moderate to high fitness levels.
Besides improving your health, regular exercise has other physical benefits, such as improving strength and mobility. It also reduces stress levels, and even low levels of exercise will cause a decrease in depressive symptomsimprove mood and promote better sleep.
This, in turn, will help you manage your diet better, improving your mood helping you choose healthier foods and avoid impulsive food choices.
The bottom line?
Exercise will help you lose weight and keep you from gaining weight back – it just won’t help you achieve your weight loss goals in isolation.
Exercise is one of the mainstays of long-term weight management. It plays a vital role in losing and maintaining weight, just like our food and sleep choices.
To encourage more exercise, grab something you enjoy. Be sure to include variety, as always doing the same daily routine is a surefire way to get bored and give up.