#168 Why haven’t I lost weight after exercising?

Why haven’t I lost weight after exercising?

Why haven’t I lost weight after exercising is a question I get all the time from patients.  In fact, the idea that exercise alone causes weight loss is probably the biggest weight loss myth I hear.  In this article, I’ll share the science behind exercise and weight loss.

A Typical Cardiology Clinic Visit

“Now then,” I said, looking down at a recent patient’s chart, which showed she was carrying at least 50 pounds more than even a fuller-bodied healthy person should be, “let’s talk about some ways to get back down to a healthier weight.”

“Oh doctor,” she immediately protested. “My back is in too much pain to exercise!”

I hear this all the time. If it’s not the back then it is a knee.  And it is something I used to believe as well. As soon as I start to talk with my patients about getting back to a healthy weight, they tell me why they can’t exercise.

“That’s fine,” I always say, “because we don’t need to talk about exercise yet. Let’s put first things first.”

Exercise Doesn’t Cause Weight Loss

Truth be told, medical studies show that exercise alone doesn’t cause weight loss. This is the answer to why haven’t I lost weight after exercising?

That’s because, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the more we exercise, the more we eat. The Gatorade, the latte, or the muffin you consume after your workout erases the calories you happened to burn in your gym class.

For most people, weight loss doesn’t come from exercise.  Rather, it comes from food choices. If you really could lose weight by exercising, I suspect you would see a lot of thin people. While studies show that exercise is critically important to maintaining a healthy weight, it really isn’t very good at getting you there.

Tip: Exercise for the right reasons

Exercising to lose weight is like driving your car more to save on gas.  True, your car may become a bit more efficient if you are driving it frequently, however, the more you drive the more gas you need to put in your car. The same is true with us. The more you exercise, the hungrier you get and the more food you need to put in your body.

That doesn’t mean exercise isn’t healthy, of course. It is — particularly when it comes to heart health, but also when it comes to brain, muscle and bone health. But for losing weight? Not so much. And once you know this, it can be exceptionally freeing.

That’s because a lot of people do exercises they don’t particularly enjoy on the notion that they need to be doing those things to lose weight. And because they don’t see weight-loss results, their only reward is frustration.

When you exercise for the right reasons, though, it’s easy to see results. If you exercise for fun — and low and behold you actually have fun — that’s a great result.

If you exercise daily to improve your cardiovascular health, you’re likely to start seeing results in your heart rate, breathing rate and endurance in just a few short weeks. And if you use exercise as an excuse to spend time with family members and friends, you’ll start reaping the benefits right away.

Do you agree with the studies showing that exercise alone causes little to no weight loss?

Please leave your comments and questions below.  As always, I’ll do my best to quickly answer every question.

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  1. I agree that exercise doesn’t cause weight loss. I’ve been an avid exerciser for years. At age 72 my daily exercise includes a mix of walking, mountain biking, balance training, and weightlifting. I love the benefits I feel, but they don’t include weight loss. I did the 5:2 Fast diet two years ago and lost 30 pounds which I’ve maintained with exercise and good choices on what I eat.

  2. Hi Dr. Day,

    Good article, as usual. I think what’s important on this subject is that exercise’s main benefit is feeling better, largely due to the increased endorphins generated by exercise. When you feel better, your tendency to eat for emotional reasons (“comfort food”) diminishes. If you stay mindful of healthy vs junk food (because let’s face it: we know what is good and what is trash by now), you’ll make better choices at the supermarket. After developing healthy eating habits and a daily exercise routine, anyone can lose weight, reverse diabetes, A-fib and who knows what else!

    But it all starts with exercise. Without that, the vicious cycle of emotional eating and depression will simply kill you.

    Thanks once again, for saving my life!
    Rich Haber

    • Hi Rich,

      I couldn’t agree with you more! For me as well, the mental component is the biggest benefit to exercise.

      You also raise an interesting point. For many people, exercise can be the “key domino.” In other words, if they can just start exercising then everything else (all the other healthy habits) will naturally fall into line.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!