3 Reasons Exercise Won’t Make You Lose Weight


The world is insane, but what really bothers me is that it is also unjust. What else besides fundamental injustice could explain that exercise alone seldom makes us slim?


Exercise is good for you, but you need to eat better to lose weight. Photo by tz1_1zt on Flickr.

In my upcoming ebook, The Satisfying Diet, I will tell Emma John’s story. She is a reporter for the newspaper the Guardian. Emma’s size-18 mother was always 20 to 30 pounds heavy and never succeeded in getting down to her natural bodyweight.

“Every week she headed to the gym,” says Emma, “where she pounded the treadmill like a paratrooper, often three times a week. Most days she took the dog for a brisk, hour-long walk. She ought to have been the slimmest of the bunch: that she remained overweight was a frustration to her, and a mystery to all of us.”

Emma’s mother is not alone in the world. An all-time high of 59 million Americans belonged to a gym in 2011, up from 23 million in 1993. And the number of gym members who actually go to the gym has risen to an all-time high, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. The average American gym member now works out 102 times a year, more than in any past year.

There is a lot of sweating going on, so lots of people must have lost weight, right?

Ahem, well, no.

The USA is still the world’s fattest country, with more than two-thirds of us overweight — and it is getting worse.


1. Exercise Is Not a Silver Bullet

What gives? Why are we getting fatter, even as we work out more than ever?

It is because we expect too much from exercise. We want it to do things for us that it cannot. Exercise is good and necessary, but you will have to eat better to lose weight.

Many studies have found the following:

“Without major changes to diet, exercise typically results in only modest weight loss at best (although it generally makes people much healthier). Quite a few exercisers lose no weight. Some gain.”

I don’t have the space here, but I will share more shocking quotes from scientific experts about exercise and weight loss in The Satisfying Diet. They all raise the same question, why isn’t exercise enough to make you lose weight?

Losing weight is a simple equation. You just have to burn more calories than you eat. And, yes, exercise burns calories.

Below I tackle the two big problems that keep exercise alone from making you lose weight.


2. Your Metabolism Is Not Helping Like You Think

If you are already overweight, walking seven miles a day is not going to make you thin. To lose weight, you have to eat fewer calories. That is one of the conclusion that researchers made after a recent trip to Tanzania, in East Africa.

There are still some traditional hunter-gatherer tribespeople living in Tanzania, and researchers studied them to answer an old question: Does being more active than the typical couch-bound Westerner burn more calories and thus help you lose weight?

The researchers measured how many miles the tribespeople walked, using GPS units. They even studied their pee for chemical markers that let them precisely determine how many calories each person burned and their metabolic rate.

At the study’s end, the researchers had confirmed that the hunter-gatherers do get more exercise than the average American. The Tanzanian men walk seven miles a day and the women three, mostly looking for food.

Here is the big surprise: despite walking more, the tribespeople did not burn more calories. Their average metabolic rate, which is the number of calories they burned in a day, was nearly identical to the average metabolic rate for Westerners.

It turns out that getting more exercise doesn’t always burn that as many extra calories as we would like to think.

I remember when I was training for a marathon and jogging in Central Park up to 30 miles a week. This research aside, I couldn’t eat enough food to keep myself from getting thinner as the week passed. Of course, I was eating a healthy diet, so I wasn’t able taking in the high-calorie soda and junk and fast foods that make many people heavy. The moral of this story is that yes, if you do lots and lots of exercise it can help you lose weight. It’s just that exercise “kite” is not a sure-fire route to weight loss, unless you combine it with changes to the diet that has made you heavy in the first place.


3. You Really Have to Bust Your Tail to Work off a Donut

The next time you order a Venti Frappuccino from Starbucks, think about this: the Tanzanian study aside, it would take you 30 minutes of step aerobics to burn off as many calories as you will find in that tall white cup with the green logo on it.

The Frappuccino is just one item in the typical Western diet that comes so loaded with calories that you might have to become a full-time bike messenger to find time to burn as many calories via exercise as you are taking in through your mouth.

If you slurp down a 12-oz. bottle of Gatorade after your work out, it is likely that the 310 calories in that drink will be more than you burned with all your hard-earned exercise.

For more on this topic, see my chart that compares the number of calories in common foods with the amount of exercise it takes to burn the same amount of calories.

In sum, exercise alone won’t take the off the pounds like you want it, too. There are still very good reasons for exercising, however, for example if you value your health as much as you do looking thin.

See my post, 8 Easy Ways to Get More Exercise That Work for Me for more on this.


What You Can Do Today

Remember that without changing your diet it’s painfully hard to get thin. If you’re not ready to adopt an entirely new diet, consider starting small. Pick just one unhealthy, high-calorie food to cut out of your diet. Hamburgers? French fries? Cookies? You pick.

Once you’ve been able to do that for a month, consider another small step. This time, add one healthy, delicious and low-cal food into your daily meal plan. Maybe you’ll eat an apple a day, or –more broadly– you want to commit to an extra piece of any kind of fruit each day.

Just like a big journey is made up of lots of small steps (or a couple of plane trips through airport hubs you never hoped to visit), from small changes are big changes made.

Free Resources:

Free Worksheet: Calculate Your Body Mass Index
Free Daily Food Log: Help Yourself Eat Better and Lose Weight
Free E-Newsletter: Stay Motivated, Keep Learning
Free Weigh Loss Quote of the Day or Quote of the Week: Get Inspired Again, and Again, and Again...

Speak Your Mind


Get your guaranteed-to-be-useful newsletter now