The Paradox of Exercise for Weight Loss: Why Exercise is Both Ineffective and Necessary for Weight Loss

January 6, 2022 by
Photo Credit: AirFit from Pexels

Exercise has a laundry list of positive benefits. Improved immune function, increased resting metabolic rate, enhanced mood, better sleep, increased balance and coordination, lowered blood sugar, etc.

One thing that is not on the list? Weight loss. Exercise is not an effective tool for weight loss. This might come as a shock because of the way exercise is portrayed in our society. Spin bikes, treadmills, ellipticals, and smart watches all emphasize the calories burned during a workout. Surely 700 calories in an OrangeTheory class should put a dent into energy balance, right?

Wrong, and this messaging has led us astray in the fight against obesity. There are industries that benefit directly from this confusion and ironically a big one is, in fact, the fitness industry. By promoting the idea that getting active means you can keep indulging in whatever food you want, companies ensure they will have customers for life because actually making progress with exercise alone is virtually impossible.

At the same time, exercise is perhaps the best predictor for weight loss and weight management that there is. People who exercise have an easier time losing and maintaining weight.

Confused yet? Hang in there.

Exercise is pretty unhelpful for weight loss because such a small percentage of our daily energy burn can come from exercise. Base metabolic rate, over which we have little control, accounts for 60-80% of our daily energy expenditure. Digesting the food we eat accounts for about 10%. This leaves only 10-30% that can come from physical activity, including non-exercise physical activity (NEAT). While it’s not nothing, a 200lb man exercising four days per week at a moderate intensity for 60 minutes can expect to lose only five pounds if he maintains his calorie intake. If he modifies his activity following the exercise to relax and recover more, that number will go down.

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