Exercise accounts for only 10–30% of your daily calorie burn. Whomp.
Many years ago, I was miserable: Nearing morbid obesity and at a complete loss for how to help myself. So I joined one of those weekly weigh-in groups and set about doing anything I could to lose weight.
I counted my calories obsessively. At first, I went old school and tracked everything on paper. Then I used an app to see exactly how much I was eating, and off the weight came. It was easier than I thought. I just had to devote a good chunk of my waking hours to figuring out what I could eat that would keep me within the day’s limit.
Sometimes my days consisted of eating a giant bagel smothered in cream cheese for lunch, then grocery-store sushi and a bag of candy for dinner. And diet soda. Always with the diet soda. You know, to save myself the calories.
It wasn’t exactly healthy eating, but I lost weight, anyway.
To be honest, at the time I didn’t care about anything other than dropping the pounds. It wasn’t about getting healthy, which is precisely why I never went to the gym. I was far too overweight and far too shy to attempt to do anything like that. When friends questioned my routine, I lied and told them that it was okay because losing weight wasn’t about working out, but only about controlling how many calories I ate.
It turns out I was right.
According to Vox, which compiled research from over 60 studies, exercise isn’t actually the key ingredient in losing weight.
Wait a minute…how can that be? Haven’t we heard for years that we need to follow the “calories in, calories out” formula to drop weight? Don’t we all rush to join the gym every January 1st in order to drop those holiday pounds? And don’t all those skinny runners and muscle-y athletes prove that exercise is the best way to lose weight?
Turns out we have been severely misled. Here’s the truth.
First, the bad news:
Exercise doesn’t account for as much of your daily total calorie burn as you’d think.
According to obesity researcher Alexxai Kravitz, your basal metabolic rate, as in how quickly your body spends energy (aka burns calories), actually accounts for 60–80% of your daily total energy expenditure. Digesting food takes up another 10%, so at most, exercise can burn 10–30% more.
So what does that mean? Basically, food makes up 100% of the energy that goes into your body, but exercise can only account for 10–30% of the energy that leaves your body. That’s a PRETTY BIG gap, especially if you’re hoping to burn off the second cupcake you indulged in during this month’s office birthday celebration.
You’d have to exercise a LOT to actually burn off the extra food you might eat due to working out.
Exercise makes you hungry, and your body begs for you to compensate for the energy you just lost. Because of this, it’s really difficult for the average person to lose weight. Vox did the math and found that if a 200-pound man started to do an hour of medium-intensity cardio four times a week (while keeping his caloric intake the same), he would lose five pounds after a month.
But what if he needs to replenish some of those calories after working out? An hour’s workout after a long day at the office may have you reaching for an extra serving at dinner, or going for a protein smoothie. None of that is necessarily bad, but it will definitely not help you lose weight. The truth is that exercising can actually HURT your weight-loss efforts, since it often makes you want to eat more.
New research implies that exercising more may not actually burn more calories.
Health Magazine reports that adding hours and hours of exercise may not have the effect some people hope it will. After a certain amount of exercise, your body may stop burning energy at the same rate. So more exercise ≠ more calories burned.
So what’s the good news, then?
The true benefits of exercise don’t have much to do with weight loss, but they DO matter.
Exercise is GREAT (and very important) for a lot of other reasons: According to Huffington Post’s data, exercise might help with depression, lowers the risk of heart disease and cancer and reduces the risk of diabetes—to name just a few of the benefits.
The other good news is that, although it seems that exercise isn’t a magic wand that will help you drop those last 15 pounds, there are actual sure-fire ways to do that.
Exercise might still be important for an overall weight-control plan and maintaining weight loss.
The Greatist reports that The National Weight Control Registry, which studies adults who have lost at least 30 pounds and have kept it off for more than a year, offers a few strategies that just may work: weekly weigh-ins, watching portion sizes, not eating high-fat foods, restricting your calories and regular exercise.
Wait…did they just say regular exercise can contribute?! Here’s the recommendation: “If you’re incorporating both diet and exercise into your weight-loss plan, don’t count the calories you burn on the treadmill as negative calories.” You’ll want to exercise for the other benefits of exercise (like improved cardiovascular health) but don’t use it to excuse that double chocolate chip muffin you had at breakfast.
Exercise also helps to build muscle, increase metabolism and make you look (and feel) better.
Don’t forget that exercise—in particular, strength training and intense stretching like yoga and pilates—can also make you leaner and build muscles that will rev your metabolism (since muscles need more energy and thus they burn more calories). This all leads to essentially making you look and feel better overall.
For me, this science definitely proved to be true.
After many years of struggling with my weight, during which I see-sawed from morbidly obese to simply overweight and back again, I’ve finally settled at a weight I’m happy with. And I did it all, ultimately, through healthier eating.
Eventually, I wised up and traded my loaded bagels for veggie omelettes, my diet sodas for unsweetened iced teas and swapped the white rice in my sushi for brown. Slowly but surely, I made small swaps in my food until I was a mostly healthy eater. Not once did I focus on exercise.
Of course, there’s one thing the science still isn’t sure about: the role exercise plays in keeping weight off.
Exercise became vastly more important after I lost the weight—not before.
These days, I aim to go to the gym a few days a week. It’s not because I believe in the calorie-burning benefits, but because eating healthier has made me realize that I want to be generally healthier. I want to make sure my heart is healthy, which is why I do cardiovascular exercise. And I want to make sure my muscles are working to their fullest capacity, so I do strength training.
It’s a balance and a struggle, but eating fewer and much healthier calories (lots of veggies, lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats) is mainly what keeps the pounds off. Still, there’s a role for exercise. And that role is to contribute to my overall physical (and mental) health.