Saturday, August 15th, 2009...11:37 AM

What Do You Mean I Won’t Lose Weight if I Exercise?

Jump to Comments

banana_muffin_cake_241840_lWell, it depends. Everyone is talking about the “Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin” article in the most the recent issue of TIME Magazine.

Basically, they are right to a point. Many people tend to OVERestimate how many calories they burn during exercise and then UNDERestimate how many calories are in a Starbucks muffin. If you exercise without planning and eating regular, healthy meals, too, then you definitely have a high potential to have a net calorie increase, especially after a workout when you are hungry and will crave high-calorie foods. One important key is to eat a healthy high-carb snack about an hour to an hour-and-a-half before you workout and then take something with protein and carbs WITH YOU to eat immediately afterward. This can help curb any extreme hunger pangs that can sidetrack your weight loss goals.

This is actually a decent article because it doesn’t downplay the many benefits of exercise. I’ve seen other articles that say the same thing and then say you DON’T need to exercise at all. Uh, no. I think the take-away message is that we really do have to pay attention to what we eat if we want to lose weight. I believe that exercise, from gardening to triathlons, plays an important role in successful weight loss and maintenance, but calorie burning may not be exercise’s most critical advantage. Exercise can help you keep your motivation as you change the way you eat, will definitely help you look your toned best as you slim down, and will elevate your mood and help you feel good about taking good care of your heart and the rest of you. It’s all about finding the realistic balance the works for you and being TRULY self-aware.


I wanted to update my blog post to include the stance of the American College of Sports Medicine (see below). I get what they say, and I do think some of what the TIME article says is misleading, but I still think the article has some merits, and when we think about the obesity epidemic in this country, I don’t want to dismiss the author’s points out of hand.

We really need to consider the role of weight loss in the context of our American culture. We live in a culture that is mired in such a vicious cycle of fast food, huge portions, and a lack of time to prepare healthy meals (and a lack of understanding regarding calories burned/consumed when exercising/eating) that I think there are many people who DO eat more calories than they burn when they are exercising. They barely have time to go to the gym, and they stop off at Sonic to grab a bite after their workout because they are starving. I THINK THIS HAPPENS! Am I crazy?

I don’t think it is the gym rats who are eating a boiled egg and an orange after their workout who have this problem. I tend to think it is the average person. The average person has an on-again, off-again relationship with exercise (though they may be “regulars” when they are in an exercise phase), typically with weight loss as the main goal. I think these are the people with whom that TIME article hits home.

Read the following, and let me know more about what YOU think.

Update from the American College of Sports Medicine

The Message Points: Exercise and Energy Balance

Exercise and Weight Management

  • There is strong evidence from the majority of the scientific literature that physical activity is an important component of an effective weight loss program.
  • Physical activity is one of the most important behavioral factors in weight maintenance and improving long-term weight loss outcomes. In fact, participation in an exercise program has proven to be the very best predictor of maintaining weight that was lost.
  • Effective weight loss and maintenance depend on a simple equation called energy balance: Calories expended through physical activity and normal lifestyle functions must exceed calories consumed.
  • It is a myth that exercise can actually prevent weight loss by leading exercisers to overeat. Research and common sense disprove this notion. Look around the gym or the jogging trail. If this were the case, wouldn’t those who regularly exercise be the fattest?

Other Benefits of Exercise

  • Exercise and physical activity have been proven to help prevent chronic conditions such as heart disease, osteoporosis, anxiety, depression, obesity and diabetes.
  • Studies show that when students are more active (through physical education, classroom activity, play, etc.) they improve test scores and attendance and experience fewer discipline problems and sick days.

Policy and economic  implications

  • Physical activity and exercise are key components of workplace wellness programs, which have been shown to return $2.90 to $5.96 in cost savings for every dollar invested by the employer. Participants in workplace wellness programs have reduced absenteeism, error rates and health care costs; they feel more alert, have better rapport with co-workers, and enjoy their work more.
  • Physical activity and exercise must play a vital role in health system reform. Cost savings from healthy lifestyles can help fund broader coverage for the underserved.
  • Stimulus funds designated for electronic medical records should include fields to record each patient’s physical activity level. Exercise IS medicine and should be measured as a vital sign like blood pressure or cholesterol levels.
  • Reimbursement for services such as healthy lifestyle counseling or clinical exercise physiologists could go a long way toward improving health and reducing health care costs.
  • Physical activity needn’t involve expensive equipment, gym memberships or team athletics. Simple activities like walking, accumulated in 10-minute bouts, can have significant benefits.
  • Communities can do much to encourage physical activity by developing bike paths and walking trails, encouraging walkable neighborhoods, opening school facilities to after- school activities, and enacting other exercise-friendly policies.

About the Author:

Chris Heidel is the owner and primary personal trainer with Libra Fitness in Austin, TX, a private, in-home studio. Chris focuses her business on developing mentoring relationships with her clients built on trust and meaningful support to help them set, achieve, and maintain realistic fitness goals. Chris truly believes that while getting in shape isn’t easy, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Chris is certified through the American Council on Exercise.

Photo by dafalias



  • The author does mention the benefits of exercise, but that part comes farther into the article than probably most people are going to read. Plus, he does a maniacal amount of exercise, so I think the takeaway message for a lot of readers is going to be, “I could knock myself out at the gym but it wouldn’t do any good–I may as well just sit here in front of the TV and eat Doritos.”

  • I hope, instead, that they come to understand that it is at the extremes that things become counterproductive. Unfortunately, articles on moderation don’t usually make the headlines. You make a very valid point.

  • I think the Time article has some valid points. I see the same women in the gym, working out like crazy and they are still overweight. It makes me think they must be eating way too much and/or “reward” themselves for a hard workout.

    But I do the same thing too. After long run, I crave sugary carbs. But I have learned (as you suggested Chris) to pack high protein snacks (to consume immediately after working out), so I don’t get home and gorge. As much as I run/workout, I still gain weight if I don’t watch what I eat and have only found dropping down to a 1200 kcal diet effective for losing weight.

  • The only time I lose the magic pound or two a week is if I both diet and exercise. Doing one without the other will keep me from gaining weight. Running (jogging!) is my exercise of choice. If I eat one gel pack (100 calories) per 4 miles, I’m not hungry at the end of a run. (And the run itself is much more pleasant!)

  • I think you’re right, that a lot of people have no idea how many calories food has, or how much they’re burning through exercise, so then they think they “earned” way more indulgence than they did. I’m continually surprised how many people don’t know, for instance, that a non-diet soda has 140 calories (it says so right on the can), or that you would have to walk or run maybe a mile and a half to burn it off.

    It doesn’t help that a lot of cardio equipment lies about calorie burn. The elliptical at the Y always tells me I burned about 600 calories in 30 minutes. I know there’s no way in hell that can be right, but I think a lot of people don’t know, and who can blame them?

    And then there’s not knowing what’s in your food. I’m guilty of this too. I always thought pesto was “basically ground-up basil” and therefore calorie-free. Then I made my own last night–olive oil is far and away the main ingredient. Oops.

  • Like so many of our society’s bigger problems the key to the solution is more complex than any one paradigm (e.g. food vs exercise) can offer. I applaud the Time article for taking a pin to our exercise mania bubble… and want to comment on a piece of the discussion that is *still* missing.

    The Time article got close when it spoke of “brown fat”, and when it also mentioned how frequent low-intensity-activities had equal if not better results than infrequent high-intensity-activities. But there was little or no mention of basal/overall metabolic rate and of underlying psychological expectations of survival-energy-needs.

    The theoretical underpinnings of my thesis are too big for a “comments” post, but in a nutshell this is what I think about sustained weight loss…

    Thinking you can exercise-your-weight-off is a fallacy because your mind (mostly at an unconscious level) will simply reset your over-all metabolic rate – both your resting rate such as when you sleep or when you’re staring at a computer screen all day, *and* in your active rate – such as choosing the elevator rather than the stairs, choosing to let the dishwasher clean up rather than washing the dishes yourself, etc..

    Likewise, thinking you can starve-your-weight-off (for more than a short period, and in a healthy way) is a mistake because our intake of calories and the tenacity with which we hold on to them is driven almost entirely based on our conscious and unconscious EXPECTATIONS of future duress (note that this is not the same as actual duress). As sophisticated as we’ve gotten as individuals and as a society, we are still basically upright monkeys pinging off of what we think are relevant data points in our fight-or-flight lives.

    Looking at the amount of “stress” in our lives is a good, if over-generalized, starting point to understand what I’m saying. Also this discussion is complicated because while some stresses will signal our primate-level brain to retain weight for future duress (e.g. a long spell without food, the need to migrate long distances soon to find new food, saving calories while fighting off a cold, etc), other stresses may signal a need to shed weight (e.g. a lot of physical “play time” may mean a stable environment and no need to keep extra weight; or if it is combat-like it may mean maximal fitness is required for inter-clan battles or for mating hierarchy). And complicated further because different individuals will respond differently to the same stressors.

    Bottom line is if you are living your life out of balance, if your conscious or un-conscious motivations are based in fighting-to-win or fleeing-to-avert-failure, then you are at a very high risk of unhealthy weight gain (cyclical or persistent). Whereas if you are living your life in balance, if you rise to the challenge of reasonable daily expectations and activities, then your percent-body-fat will almost certainly normalize around a healthy weight.

    And so, in my opinion, the *real* work to be done for literally anyone trying to shed pounds is to change the circumstances and psychology of their life such that they feel they are free from imminent or long-term peril, and feel they can meet their basic needs with reasonable effort (and don’t feel compelled to fulfill extraneous desires). It is only once these two conditions are met that adjustments to the more basic building blocks of physical health (sleep, water, physical activity, and food) will naturally and consistently fall into place.

  • Great discussion points!

    This is just my own (non-scientific) observation: A lot of people say that they see overweight people at the gym and they don’t seem to lose weight.

    Most of the overweight people I have ever seen at the gym never persist going more than a month.There’s always the burst of activity in the first week, and then it tails off after that. It’s only the rare person who keeps it up for longer than that.

    Just because you see an overweight person at the gym is not proof that exercise doesn’t work. It’s only maintaining a healthy lifestyle over a long period of time that has true results.

  • Thanks for all the comments. Long-term goals and balanced lifestyle habits really are critical to weight loss success. I find it funny that the ACSM states, “It is a myth that exercise can actually prevent weight loss by leading exercisers to overeat. Research and common sense disprove this notion. Look around the gym or the jogging trail. If this were the case, wouldn’t those who regularly exercise be the fattest?” It’s almost like they are grasping at straws. This statement completely ignores the great majority of people who exercise, the people who hit the gym or the trail for a few months and then fade (i.e., the average person).

  • Just replying (and clarifying because I think it was in reference t my initial comment) to Kaizan’s comment…I have belonged to the same gym for 15 years and the overweight people that I see at the gym are people that I have see for years. And like I said, I see the same people, drenched in sweat working out like crazy but they could be considered obese. Despite all their efforts, their bodies have not changed.

Leave a Reply


Bad Behavior has blocked 194 access attempts in the last 7 days.