Don’t exercise to lose weight

This is what an exercise-based weight loss program looks like:

Monday is cardio day: 20 minutes of climbing stairs to nowhere, followed by 30 minutes of walking slightly uphill to nowhere, too.

Wednesday is personal trainer day: a whole hour of being worked like a farm animal by someone I pay for the privilege of telling me.

Then on Fridays, I head off to my body-shaping class to bend, flex, and jump with a roomful of people, hoping to walk out looking different than I did when I walked in.

Isn’t that how most of us do it?

We grunt and sweat through our workouts, smugly satisfied that our efforts are burning more calories than the piece of chocolate cake we ate for dessert the night before.

Yet despite our best efforts, our weight and shape seem to be trapped in the very place we’re trying to escape from.

Eventually, we give up hope of losing those last 20-30-40 pounds and the exercise routine becomes just another part of our social circle, or we drop the program altogether.

Well, as a doctor, I’m here to tell you that the common belief that exercise is THE WAY to lose excess weight is false.

Your inner couch potato may rejoice because while exercise is good for many other healthy reasons, it’s not your #1 weight loss tool.

The basic problem is that while exercise burns calories, it also stimulates hunger. That causes us to eat more, and unless we are very controlled in how much or what we eat, this will eliminate any weight loss benefits of exercise.

In other words, in most cases, exercise makes your weight loss challenge even more difficult than it already is.

Look at the results of this study…

In 2009, researchers at Louisiana State University followed the weight loss progress of 464 overweight women for six months. They found no significant differences between women who exercised and those who did not.

Dr. Timothy Church, chair of health wisdom at LSU, attributes the lack of an exercise bonus to “compensation.” By that, he specifically means that those women who exercised rewarded themselves in one of two ways later that day: eating more or doing less.

Even a brief stop at Starbucks for coffee and a muffin for a little “treat” shaves 300-400 calories from your workout time.

Colleague Eric Ravussin, professor of diabetes and metabolism and a leading exercise researcher at LSU, agrees: “In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless.”

For those of you who are more math inclined, munch on this next time you get back from the gym… Our bodies need 6 calories a day to maintain a pound of muscle, but only 2 calories per pound of fat.

This means that when you finally manage to convert 10 pounds of fat to muscle, which is a significant achievement, you can eat an additional 40 calories per day with no weight gain effect.


Exercise is good for many reasons, but the best exercise for weight loss is just good old self-control. We wrote an article about it a while back – the #1 reason for weight loss failure – but if you missed it, drop us an email and we’ll be happy to send you a copy.

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