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The classic advice of ‘get plenty of exercise’ weighs heavy on the mind of many dieters. However, rarely do we stop to ask; ‘is exercise really necessary to lose weight?’
The idea of exercising to ‘burn fat’ seems to have become increasingly unappealing in our largely sedentary society. It’s viewed as a chore by many, and can feel almost impossible for many overworked and ‘time poor’ individuals.
The good news is that there could be some light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe exercise isn’t quite as ‘vital’ as you have been led to believe. Stick around to read the full article below, where I use an evidence-based approach to give you a realistic view why exercise may or may not be necessary to lose weight.
What does it mean to ‘lose weight’?
Weight loss is defined as the reduction of body mass and body fat. It can be measured using a weighing scale and is a crude measurement of your total body mass at any given time. It’s a number that can fluctuate up or down over short periods of time, due to factors like time of day, water retention and how long ago you last went to the bathroom.
Most people are actually aiming to ‘lose fat’, rather than lose weight. In reality, most people don’t want to lose bone or muscle mass, but would be very happy to lose fat mass.
Therefore, when assessing whether exercise is really necessary for weight loss, we should largely be assessing its ability to aid in fat loss without causing excess bone and muscle loss.
How does weight loss actually occur?
The topic of weight loss is often misunderstood, overcomplicated and can be used for monetization by unscrupulous nutrition and drug companies. In reality, it all comes down to a very simple equation: calories in vs. calories out.
In essence, weight loss will occur when you expend more calories than you burn. You need to consume less energy than you use during your daily activity. Eating/drinking less calories than you burn is known as a ‘calorie deficit’.
That’s right, weight loss is just that simple. However, don’t start celebrating just yet, the complicated part is coming soon…
So, Is exercise really necessary to lose weight??
No. Exercise is not necessary to lose weight.
Exercise does not have any ‘magic’ effect on weight loss. It does not specifically reduce body fat irrespective of caloric intake. It will not make you lose weight without addressing any other lifestyle factors.
Despite what mythology might say, it’s impossible to ‘out exercise’ a poor diet when it comes to health outcomes. Even those who eat enormous amounts of junk food and exercise intensely enough to burn the calories usually suffer from weight problems at some point.
Just ask one of the many overweight ex athletes, who eventually became insulin resistant due to the large amount of sugar ingested during their sporting days. This is not to mention the non-weight related health ramifications of eating that type of diet.
Why have we been led to believe that exercise is necessary for weight loss?
People struggling with weight issues have long been portrayed as lazy, undisciplined and greedy. The old saying of ‘eat less, move more’ has been the doctor’s advice for many years, and obesity rates have continued to climb.
The consensus of the big food companies points the finger of blame solely at the individual. Profit margins must be protected at all costs in their opinion, and they will do whatever it takes to convince consumers that they’re just lazy.
This sad state of affairs was punctuated in 2014 with the inception of the Coca-Cola funded Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). The sole purpose of this non-profit was to recruit scientists that will toe the line of the sugar industry and dispel any concerns around the link between junk food and obesity.
In the words of GEBN: “Weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.” In my opinion; this is absolutely despicable.
The evidence points to sugar-sweetened beverages being strongly associated with weight gain due to their hyper-caloric makeup and lack of satiety signalling. They can make you fat without feeling full. These products are also linked to type 2 diabetes and may cause multiple poor health outcomes irrespective of weight gain.
Despite the studies; most Americans still believe that lack of exercise is the culprit. In fact, a 2013 US survey revealed that 80% of people believe individuals are primarily to blame for obesity.
I agree that individuals need to take some responsibility for their food and exercise choices, but it’s plain to see that the odds are stacked against those trying to maintain a healthy body weight.
How can I lose weight if I hate exercise?
The key to weight loss is consuming fewer calories than you burn, and it’s certainly possible to do this without performing any exercise. You will need to focus your attention on lowering calorie intake in order to achieve a fuel deficit that will force your body to tap into stored body fat to use as energy.
Losing weight for those that hate exercise is a matter of ensuring you sufficiently lower your calorie intake from all food and drink. Some may find it useful to calculate their daily energy expenditure, then work out a method of eating that leads you to eating fewer calories than you expend.
The mechanics of losing weight are simple: Calories in vs. calories out. However, the manner at which you achieve this balance is where things get complicated. Sure, you could just eat very small amounts of junk food, not exercise and still lose weight, but you will likely feel very hungry, tired and weak. It’s not going to be fun.
If you hate exercise but want to lose weight, some strategies that may help include:
- Increase your non-exercise activity. Walk to the shops instead of drive, take the stairs, get a standing desk. This will aid you in burning more calories throughout the day, so you can eat more food but still remain in a calorie deficit.
- Eat whole, unprocessed foods. Natural foods are often high in fibre, low in calories and lead to higher satiety. You will find you are able to eat fewer total calories without feeling hungry.
- Increase your protein intake. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient. Eating sufficient amounts will leave you feeling full for longer and can also preserve your muscle while dieting.
- Eat within a shorter window. Many people find that eating their meals within a smaller window (e.g. 12pm-8pm or 10am-6pm) helps them to control calorie intake. This is known as ‘intermittent fasting’ and has shown weight-loss benefits in a number of clinical trials.
Why might exercise be beneficial to weight loss?
Is exercise really necessary to lose weight? No.
Can exercise help people lose weight? Absolutely.
Yes you heard that right. Exercise may not be necessary for weight loss, but it can certainly make the process a whole lot easier. In fact, I would go as far as saying that it’s optimal to perform regular exercise as a part of any weight loss plan…and here’s why:
- Exercise burns calories. It will increase your overall energy expenditure, allowing you to eat more food and still lose weight.
- It will protect your muscle mass. Training your muscles will signal your body to maintain them, rather than burn them for fuel. Hence you’re more likely to lose fat and retain muscle if your weight loss plan involves resistance training.
- It may guard against nutrient deficiency. The very low calorie diets required to lose weight without exercise often don’t provide enough actual food to get the nutrients necessary for optimal health. Exercise will allow you to eat more food and increase nutrient intake.
- Exercise will speed up weight loss. If you’re increasing your calorie deficit through exercise, you may lose weight faster (providing you don’t increase food intake).
- Exercise improves insulin sensitivity. It will make your body more capable of handling the carbohydrates (sugars) that you eat, leading to reduced blood sugar swings and improved overall health.
- Exercise might improve your mood. Just the idea of being on a weight loss plan can often make people feel unhappy, but exercise has been shown to improve mood and self-confidence.
- Exercise will improve your overall health. It’s no secret that exercise is one of the best longevity habits we have available. It’s also a great way to significantly reduce your chronic disease risk.
Is losing weight mostly diet or exercise?
Losing weight is about burning more calories than you eat or drink. You could achieve this by reducing the calories you consume or increasing your exercise to burn more calories. Arguably, it’s probably a some combination of the two that will work best for most individuals.
The key here is to ensure your energy intake is less than your expenditure. If you increase your exercise but also increase your food intake, you may still be eating more than you burn. In this case, it may help to understand your eating and exercise habits and get a glimpse into your energy balance by experimenting with a food tracking application.
In essence, losing weight will mostly be about diet for the majority of people. It’s possible for almost anyone to reduce their calorie intake, but it’s very challenging for many people to perform enormous amounts of exercise.
The key here is just finding a balance of diet and exercise that works for you. It should feel easy, sustainable and moderate. You should feel energetic, content and free. You should never feel restricted, tired or bored.
What are the key takeaways?
- Weight loss programs should be aimed at losing fat, not muscle or bone.
- Big food companies have tricked people into thinking their just too lazy and poor quality food is not to blame for weight gain.
- Weight loss is about consuming less calories than you burn.
- Exercise is not necessary for weight loss.
- Exercise can assist in making weight loss easier and has a wide range of health benefits.
- You need to find a sustainable way of eating and exercising that works for you in order to achieve long-term, sustainable weight stability.
How can I start my weight loss journey?
The first thing to do is take stock of your situation. Taking a look at your overall diet and physical activity levels is a great way to give you an insight into areas that may need improvement.
The key here is to avoid fad diets and instead focus on finding a lifestyle that will lead to long-term success and stability. Small changes are often enough to move you in the right direction without forcing you to feel unhappy and restricted. It’s all about enjoyment and happiness, not exhaustion and hunger.
Every individual needs to find what works for them. If you enjoy exercise, great! If you hate exercise, let’s find a healthy way of living that works for your lifestyle. You should not be forced to do things you hate. That’s not sustainable.
As a health coach, I work with people on achieving their weight-related goals by putting them in charge of their own actions, rather than forcing them to exercise or eat foods they hate. If you want to learn more, you can contact me for a free consultation where we can discuss your ideas and see what support you may need.