Think You Need to Exercise Harderto Lose Weight? Think Again

by Melissa Diane Smith

Are you exercising like crazy and still not losing excess weight? That may be because you’re following a strategy that doesn’t work.

Contrary to what we’ve been told the past few decades, exercise doesn’t help people lose weight. In fact, it can lead to weight gain. What we eat matters much more in shedding unwanted pounds than exercise, according to the August 17th TIME magazine cover story, “The Myth About Exercise.”

So, what’s the skinny on the activity we’re all told to do? Here’s a summary from the TIME story:

“In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless,” says Eric Ravussin, chair in diabetes and metabolism at Louisiana State University and a prominent exercise researcher. Many recent studies have found that exercise isn’t as important in helping people lose weight as you hear so regularly in gym advertisements or on shows like The Biggest Loser — or, for that matter, from magazines like this one.

The basic problem is that while it’s true that exercise burns calories and that you must burn calories to lose weight, exercise has another effect: it can stimulate hunger. That causes us to eat more, which in turn can negate the weight-loss benefits we just accrued. Exercise, in other words, isn’t necessarily helping us lose weight. It may even be making it harder.

Several studies show that people who exercise strenuously eat more calories throughout the day than those who don’t. Whether that’s because exercise makes people more hungry or because people are more tired, have less self-control, or want to reward themselves after pushing themselves to work out, it’s common for people to both eat more and to eat junkier foods after going to the gym.

The problem may stem from pushing ourselves into sweaty, exhausting, intense bursts of activity – the way most people define exercise today – instead of doing frequent, low-level activity, such as walking, gardening, carrying groceries, and other activity throughout the day. Many obesity researchers now believe that doing more steady low-level activity, which our human ancestors did, is less stressful for both our muscles and appetite-control responses and would be much better for us in the long run than short, intense exercise at the gym.


Cloud, John. “The Myth About Exercise: Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin.” TIME, August 17, 2009. pgs. 42-47. – Read the full story.

Melissa’s Comments:

I covered some of the early research on lifetyle-related activity in Chapter 10: A Rational Approach to Fitness and Physical Activity in my Syndrome X book. So, I had to cover this TIME magazine story on the most recent research on exercise. It’s important information because it goes against what has been drilled into our heads about how to lose weight and it comes to the same conclusion I have come to in my practice: What we eat is the key factor in whether we lose weight or not.

Have you ever seen someone who has arduously worked out at the gym for years and still has a roll of fat around his or her waistline? I see this very often and I often wonder why a light bulb doesn’t turn on in that person’s head to tell him or her that, “Gee, this exercise isn’t helping me lose weight. Maybe I need to change what I eat.” When I see clients who want to lose weight, I of course focus on that point, and when they take action and change the food they’re eating, pounds drop away faster and far easier than any of my clients (especially those who used to force themselves to be gym rats) could ever imagine.

As I mention on the home page of this website, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you’re tired of pushing yourself to do exercise you dislike (and it’s not helping you lose weight anyway), try a new strategy. Stop doing something that is counterproductive. Save your money and stop your gym membership. Instead, start walking and build up how far you walk. Walk up and down stairs more and walk to stores from parking spots further away. Move your muscles in other ways, too – such as doing Tai Chi, yoga, swimming, gardening, yardwork, or cleaning – so that you do more slower but steadier activity in your daily life. Above all else, though, work on the food you’re eating. If you don’t know how to change the food you’re eating to promote weight loss, take the money you were spending on a gym membership and sign up for nutrition counseling or coaching so you can learn an important skill that will help you the rest of your life.

We’ve all heard over and over again that we can eat anything we want “in moderation” and exercise off the extra calories. (That’s a message food manufacturers have pushed on all of us; doctors, dietitians, and the media picked up on it; and we now accept it as fact.) But it’s just plain wrong. Following that strategy isn’t working for people who need to lose weight, and that’s why the United States and other countries are not winning the battle of the bulge. Buck the frenetic exercise trend and focus on what you eat. That’s the part of the obesity problem nearly everyone has missed.

Copyright © 2009 Melissa Diane Smith

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