Why Exercise Is NOT the Key to Weight Loss

In All Health Watch, Diet and Nutrition, Featured Article

In the last 20 years, the number of overweight children and adolescents has tripled. Adults have fared just as poorly. Currently more than two thirds – almost 70% – of Americans are considered overweight or obese.

And if you listen to the candy and snack food manufacturers, beverage companies, the processed food industry and fast food restaurants, our growing waistlines have very little to do with how much or the types of food we put in our mouths.

At least that’s the “spin” these companies tried to put on the situation when the Department of Health and Human Services recently drafted new recommendations on health and obesity.

The food and beverage industry was concerned that the government might recommend eating less processed junk food (Gasp!). So they mobilized their full army of lobbyists to shape the government’s message to their benefit.

Not surprisingly, the government soon adopted the talking points handed to them by the food industry. It is just more evidence that the institutions of government have been captured by the companies they are mandated to regulate.

If You’re Heavier Than You Want to Be, It’s Not Because of This…

According to these groups, the reason why we are so fat is that we have become too lazy and sedentary. We don’t exercise enough.

Now, we won’t argue that most of us should be more active. But that is NOT the reason we are so fat.

In fact, studies show that exercise is quite ineffective when it comes to weight loss. But more on that in a moment…

The first point to consider is that studies have shown that physical activity has NOT declined significantly in the last thirty years. We may sit in front of the computer more today, but before that it was the television. And the numbers of people who have gym memberships and participate in workout programs are near all-time highs.

On the other hand, other studies have shown that increased food energy is more than sufficient to explain the U.S. epidemic of obesity.

Beyond that, the role of exercise in weight loss has been wildly overstated. In fact, studies clearly show that exercise is quite ineffective when it comes to weight loss. But it’s even worse than that. If you exercise the way most weight loss specialists, government agencies and medical organizations tell you to, you will probably GAIN weight!

The typical recommendation from these organizations is what we call chronic cardio. For example, in 2007 the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association issued a joint statement recommending “60 to 90 minutes of physical activity” for weight loss. And they did not mean per week… that was per day!

In this article, we will tell you why exercise is not the key to weight loss. We’ll also show you why the wrong kind of exercise (chronic cardio) will actually undermine your weight loss efforts. But first, let’s make something clear…

We are strong advocates for exercise.

The health and emotional benefits of regular exercise are undeniable. Countless studies show that exercise (even low-level exercise) can dramatically reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It helps to alleviate chronic pain. It can improve your mental health and cognitive ability. It improves your energy, stamina and longevity. And the list goes on. So you SHOULD exercise.

Just don’t expect it to work wonders when it comes to fat loss…

The problem with long-duration cardio, in particular, is that while it burns calories, it can also make you ravenously hungry. And not only does cardio exercise make us hungrier. It also makes us feel as if we are entitled to make bad food choices. Just think about how many times you have heard someone say, “Well, I deserve this [insert decadent dessert here]. I worked out today.”

Studies Clearly Show That People Who Exercise More Tend to Eat More

One study of 538 students, published in the International Journal of Obesity, found that when kids start to exercise, they eat more – an average of 100 calories more than they burned during exercise. Talk about getting “stuck on a treadmill.”

The problem is that it can take only minutes to consume far more calories than you burn during exercise. It takes about five minutes to eat a few slices of pizza and wash them down with a tall glass of soda, for example. That’s about 1,000 calories. Now consider what it would take to burn off those calories.

The table below shows how many calories a 130 pound person and a 190 pound person would burn engaged in various physical activities.

Calories Burned Per Hour for Various Activities
Activity 130 lbs. 190 lbs.
Judo / Karate / Kick boxing 590 863
Full court basketball 472 690
Running (12 minute mile) 472 690
Stationary Bicycle (moderate) 413 604
Golf, carrying clubs 325 474
Walking (moderate pace) 207 302


As you can see, even the most strenuous activity levels are no match for poor food choices and an overactive appetite. When you consider that you would have to burn 3,500 calories to lose just one pound of fat, it becomes clear that exercise is NOT the most important part of the equation.

To burn that number of calories would require about five hours of full court basketball for an average man! That might sound fun, but there are better ways to lose weight.

Take a look again at the table above, and consider what you would have to do to burn off the energy consumed in these foods:

  • Starbucks Frappucino Coffee with Whipped Cream: 550 calories
  • Dunkin Donuts Sesame Seed Bagel with Cream Cheese: 570 calories
  • McDonald’s Big Mac, Large Coke and Large Fries: 1,624 calories

It really puts into perspective the claims of fast food and junk food manufacturers that we are fat simply because we don’t exercise enough.

Exercise Alone Is Not Effective for Weight Loss

In one study, published by the Public Library of Science, LSU researchers randomly assigned 464 overweight, non-exercising women to four different groups. Women in three of those groups worked out with a personal trainer for 72 minutes, 136 minutes and 194 minutes per week for six months. The fourth group maintained their usual level of physical activity. All of the women were asked not to change their dietary habits (but to record what they ate).

The study showed that women in all of the groups lost weight. But the women who worked out with a trainer several days a week for six months lost only slightly more than the women in the control group. And many of the women in the exercise groups actually gained weight.

Probably the most comprehensive study of the impact of exercise on weight loss was performed by researchers known as the Cochrane Collaboration. Their review included 43 studies. The average amount of exercise prescribed in these studies was 45 minutes, three to five days a week. The studies lasted from three to 12 months.

The studies that compared diet alone to exercise alone showed that the “dieters” lost between six and 30 pounds, while the “exercisers” lost between one and nine pounds. Other studies in this review compared the effect of diet and exercise to diet alone. These studies showed the average weight loss for diet and exercise combined was eight to 39 pounds. The groups that focused on exclusively on diet lost between five and 37 pounds.

Many other studies with various methodologies suggest the same results: Exercise alone is quite ineffective for weight loss. And in many cases, it can actually be counterproductive.

The Best Exercise for Fat Loss and Long-Term Health

None of this is meant to suggest that exercise is not important to your health. It is extremely effective and beneficial for improving just about every measurable risk factor for disease.

And in fact, the right kind of exercise can help a great deal with fat loss and body composition. So what is the “right kind” of exercise? The same kind of exercise our biological ancestors engaged in for thousands of years.

That would include lots of moving around at a low level of exertion… occasionally lifting heavy things… and occasionally exerting ourselves near our maximum capacity for short periods of time.

The way to model this in the modern world is to walk frequently and often. Sprint occasionally. And lift weights or engage in other resistance and weight-bearing exercises times per week. Further detail is beyond the scope of this article, but we believe Dr. Sears’ PACE Program is an excellent and highly effective way to exercise for health and fat loss. His book contains a treasure trove of information as to why this is so.

But the bottom line is that exercise is only part of the equation when it comes to weight loss – probably no more than 80 percent of it. It is what you eat – not how hard you try to work it off – that matters.

So what should you eat?

The diet we recommend is one that is rich in protein and healthy fats. These foods keep you full and satisfied for longer, they stimulate muscle growth, and they do very little to boost blood sugar and insulin (the fat storage hormone). Your carbohydrates should come from low-glycemic sources like whole fruits and vegetables.

The mainstream mantra for weight loss is: Eat less and exercise more.

Forget that.

Your mantra should be: Eat better and exercise smarter.

[Ed. Note: If you are already eating better and exercising smarter, and still can’t seem to lose weight, you may be unaware that three “chemicals” in your body may be making you fat. Fortunately, once you know what they are and how they work, you can take control of your fat loss… and finally reach the weight you’ve been striving for. We’ve prepared a special video that explains everything. Click here to watch it now…]