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

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Exercise has a laundry list of positive benefits. Improved immune function, increased resting metabolism, improved mood, better sleep, increased balance and coordination, decreased blood sugar, etc.

One thing not on the list? weight loss. Exercise is not an effective weight loss tool. This may come as a shock because of the way physical activity is portrayed in our society. Spin bikes, treadmills, cross trainers and smart watches all emphasize the calories burned during a workout. At least 700 calories in an OrangeTheory class should put a dent in the energy balance, right?

Wrong, and this message has led us astray in the fight against obesity. There are industries that directly benefit from this confusion and ironically a big one is in fact the fitness industry. By promoting the idea that getting active means you can continue to indulge in whatever you want, companies ensure they have customers for life, because it’s virtually impossible to make progress with exercise alone.

At the same time, exercise is arguably the best weight loss and weight management predictor out there. People who exercise have more trouble losing weight and maintaining it.

Still confused? Hang in there.

Exercise is pretty useless for weight loss because such a small percentage of our daily energy burn can come from exercise. Basic metabolism, 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-exercising physical activity (NEAT). While it’s not nothing, a 200-pound man who exercises at moderate intensity for 60 minutes four days a week can expect to lose just five pounds if he maintains his caloric intake. If he adjusts his activity after exercise to relax and recover more, that number will drop.

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