Why You Shouldn't Exercise To Lose Weight
April 21, 2017 11:16 AM   Subscribe

A summary of 60+ studies shows that, while exercise is good for your health in many ways, you shouldn't exercise to lose weight.
posted by chrchr (30 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
To be fair, some of us only exercise because we're too lazy to cancel our gym memberships.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:37 AM on April 21, 2017 [14 favorites]

There's a weird lurching in rhetoric in this article.

First, I think many people would be happy to have the "small" weight losses (five pounds in a month!) cited here as resulting from exercise-only.

Second, though, and much more importantly, I'm really not aware of many people urging exercise only as a means of weight control. That was certainly not Michelle Obama's point. There's a big difference between the message "exercise by itself will make you thin" and "exercise and diet changes together will promote a healthy weight." This article keeps trying to smash the (purported) myth of exercise-only and thus disparaging exercise while, at the same time, it's citing evidence that supports the argument that exercise helps, just not nearly as much as one would hope. This leads to odd results. Look at the summary in the FPP: "you shouldn't exercise to lose weight." That's not what the data is saying at all!

Now, if exercise were otherwise bad for you, or futile, it might be worth getting worked up about the possibility of people misapplying "diet and exercise" and only exercising. But since exercise appears to promote health even in the absence of weight loss, that's much less of a concern.
posted by praemunire at 11:55 AM on April 21, 2017 [21 favorites]

This aligns with my thinking, and I mark that all up to counting calories. Counting calories is rigorous and controlling and I absolutely understand how it can really lead to some people having a problematic relationship with the activity. But for me, it was amazing to discover that "that past hour of pain" == "this small bowl of oatmeal". For me, the choice was very easy.

Exercise is something I hate. But when I do it, I do it not in an attempt to achieve anything, but I find things I enjoy. Walking around for a half hour after dinner most days. Riding my bike to work some days. Getting out and seeing things. For me, the worst thing I could imagine is a treadmill. I know other people are absolutely opposite than that.

I think people should eat and exercise for the right reasons. I applaud this effort to help people understand good reasons to, and not to, exercise.
posted by rebent at 12:00 PM on April 21, 2017 [11 favorites]

For me, it has always made a difference, but in considerably more indirect ways. Like: I am considerably less likely to turn to sugar to feel better in a given moment if I'm exercising regularly. I am likely to drink less alcohol to hit a state where I feel relaxed if I'm exercising regularly. I'm more likely to be craving food with actual nutritional value. I generally feel better, and when I'm already feeling better, eating better isn't a chore. When I feel like ass, then eating better is the hardest thing in the universe.
posted by Sequence at 12:32 PM on April 21, 2017 [23 favorites]

Five pounds a month is something I could be happy with, but that's for going from no exercise to 60 minutes of medium-intensity running four days a week which seems like rather a lot to someone as sedentary as myself.
posted by Four Ds at 12:47 PM on April 21, 2017

My takeaway from these articles is always less "exercise doesn't matter because it won't make you lose weight" and more "maybe you shouldn't use losing weight as your primary indicator of how healthy you are." Exercise makes people healthier by almost every conceivable measure. There's not much evidence that anything consistently leads to long-term weight-loss. So maybe we should focus on exercise because of the good that it does, rather than denigrating it because it joins every other activity in the world on the long list of things that don't lead to permanent weight-loss.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:49 PM on April 21, 2017 [35 favorites]

The only lesson that worked for me (down from 255 to 195 since November) was:

"Diet to lose weight, exercise to build muscle"

By treating them as separate ideas I was able to come up with a routine that allowed me to do both, and refine each separately as needed.
posted by synthetik at 1:27 PM on April 21, 2017 [6 favorites]

If only the standard adage of doctors everywhere were "eat less and exercise."
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:07 PM on April 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have to say, recognizing that exercise would not be a primary driver of weight loss was how I was able to actually start exercising regularly for almost the first time in my life, in my late thirties. Because if it's not about weight loss, which is a super-fraught topic for me (and many people), then it can "just" be about the other things exercise does for you. I can focus on how fucking fantastic I feel afterwards, or on getting stronger, or better at certain things.

I do think I've started eating a little bit better since I started working out regularly, mostly because the workouts I do are pretty intense and/or focused on strength and balance, and if I eat poorly (too much sugar, not enough protein), I will feel it. If I have a hangover, or don't get enough sleep, I will feel it. So I do think I've been eating/living a bit healthier - but I've also probably been eating more, too, so I don't expect to lose much weight very quickly.

I don't weigh myself regularly, and I keep catching myself thinking "oh, well, I should just weigh myself or take my measurements like once a month so I can track my progress" and then I have to remind myself that there are other ways I'm measuring my progress, like how much I can lift in a back squat or how fast I can row 500 meters.
posted by lunasol at 5:02 PM on April 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

Now, if exercise were otherwise bad for you, or futile, it might be worth getting worked up about the possibility of people misapplying "diet and exercise" and only exercising. But since exercise appears to promote health even in the absence of weight loss, that's much less of a concern.

But it's not like there are no bad consequences to allowing people to believe something that isn't true. For example, if someone believes exercise is the most effective route for weight loss but they aren't seeing results, they might then: 1. blame themselves for not trying hard enough, 2. give up on exercise entirely, or 3. ramp up the intensity to unsustainable levels and then burn out or injure themselves. The positive outcomes of exercise -- you can get stronger and healthier, you're less likely to die, etc -- are good enough that we don't have to lie to people about its efficacy for weight loss.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:02 PM on April 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

as a former large person who has tried it all. I can say, for myself at least, that working out does no harm; Losing weight though, means that one MUST eat a (good) breakfast every day.
posted by shockingbluamp at 7:34 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Well, cardio also has interesting effects on insulin immediately afterwards, and, some (not all) people find that vigorous cardio reduces appetite. Psych studies have found that exercising helps people stick to dietary changes (iirc, in part because it's a thing people are actively doing, vs not doing [which some see portion control as about. Which it is, but it doesn't have to be painful if you focus on satiety promoting foods]). Also boosts mood, which might help with motivation in general (and weight loss in particular). Plus, it's a bit of a calorie buffer if you do a bit most days. Not useless at all, just probably not the thing to focus on for weight loss. I started with fitness, then moved to changes in food. Among other things that happened, my body seemed to stop wanting (as many) Quarter Pounders, they just felt wrong (maybe because of this action on insulin? Idk).
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:46 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

(Like, most studies find it certainly helps. [With adherence])
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:48 PM on April 21, 2017

I personally have found that it helps psychologically, in the sense that it recasts dietary changes as support for an active program of getting faster, stronger, etc., rather than a dreary set of restrictions to be practiced for their own sake until I can't stand it anymore. But I expect this approach only works for some people.
posted by praemunire at 7:52 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I guess I see a kind of inverse point to this article - exercise alone won't make you thin, and just because you're fat doesn't mean you don't exercise. I'm fairly fat and I exercise...well, not as much as a real athlete, but I bike commute year round, go to the gym for weights a few times a week and usually end up taking long walks or long bike rides a few times a month, and every time I have to see a new doctor or have any kind of fitnessy conversation with an authority figure, the best I ever get is mere surprise that I can be both kind of fat and active at the same time - sometimes I actively have to go into great detail and I can see that they don't believe me, because in their minds, if I really exercised every day I would be thin and fit-looking. So an article that says "actually, exercise doesn't make you thin" seems quite useful to me.

You can be fat and physically strong, flexible and cardiovascularly fit. Shaming of fat people at gyms and in public places keeps fat people from exercising, so people don't see fat people exercising, so people think that merely being a little overweight means that you are physically incapable of moving from the couch.

I mean, for a midwestern person settling gently into early middle age, I'm actually not that large - but I'm always the biggest person at the gym by quite a lot.
posted by Frowner at 8:11 PM on April 21, 2017 [21 favorites]

shockingbluamp: I only started loosing weight when I started only eating one meal a day in the evening. I don't believe there are universally true statements about weight loss, beyond 'eat less' and 'be honest with yourself about what you eat and what you weigh'. After that, it's a game of keep trying things until you find something that works.
posted by Grimgrin at 10:38 PM on April 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

hockingbluamp: I only started loosing weight when I started only eating one meal a day in the evening.

I believe it was this thread Skip breakfast and have a real meal later - intermittent fasting back in December of 2011. **SO MANY PEOPLE** saying, "ugh, breakfast :( " validated my feelings, and helped me get to the root cause of my issue.

Back in those days, by eating late in the morning (9am) I wouldn't be hungry at lunchtime, so I'd eat a late lunch, but not too late, because all the not-shitty lunch places downtown close at 2. This all set me up for non-stop grazing.

3 days later, I started a 16/8 IF, skipping breakfast, and actually being hungry for lunch at noon. Not snacking for the most part until dinner between 6 and 7, then at 8pm, I'm done until lunch.

I've got a whole bunch of other things to deal with along the way. Two types of arthritis makes working out challenging, but even without that, I'm doing pretty good. My 60 day rate of weight change is zero without working out. That pound a week of additional loss from 90 minutes of vigorous exercise a week matches my experience too.

So, long-story short, whatever works, and ye canna break the laws o physics!
posted by mikelieman at 11:36 PM on April 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

An hour of running may add seven hours to your life.

The only exercise I get is riding my bike to work and back, about 5.5 miles a day, or 30 minutes. As a tall guy in his early fifties, I am afraid that running will hurt my knees and already gimpy back.
posted by mecran01 at 6:50 AM on April 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

"Diet to lose weight, exercise to build muscle"

The key point that these quasi-scientific articles always miss is that muscle weighs more than fat.
Throw away your scales and buy a tape measure:

"Keeping your waist circumference to less than half your height can help increase life expectancy for every person in the world" ~ Dr Margaret Ashwell
posted by Lanark at 7:08 AM on April 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

I feel like this is a good place to put the Oatmeals commentary on running.

My personal take: I treat cardio as Willpower food (link to a book on Amazon). Takes a little will, gain a lot afterward.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 9:46 AM on April 22, 2017

The key point that these quasi-scientific articles always miss is that muscle weighs more than fat.

Sure, muscle is denser than fat, but you have to be building a lot of muscle to gain significant weight from exercise. Like you've got to be lifting heavy for those sweet gainz. If you're gaining a lot of weight while regularly exercising, it's almost certainly due more to fat than to muscle mass.
posted by dis_integration at 4:07 PM on April 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

What dis_integration said, and the other reason to prefer a scale to a tape measure is that the scale gives you feedback much faster. You can lose a pound or two in a week, but it takes longer than that to show a difference on the tape.
posted by chrchr at 4:26 PM on April 22, 2017

Thank you chrchr. I will share this with my weekly 'Fat Meeting' group. I tried loosing weight with exercise, to no avail. But diet, and reducing calories makes the biggest difference. As the author notes, exercise is healthy. But, one cannot stair master away the belly plummage effects of a one pound carnitas burrito.
posted by breadbox at 10:31 PM on April 22, 2017

Exercise burns fewer calories than you expect, and food contains more calories than you expect.
posted by nnethercote at 1:52 AM on April 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

Interesting article. I liked the quote "you can't outrun a bad diet"


"stay away from high-fat foods, and watch their portion sizes."

I doubt that there is a strong correlation between fat and obesity. It might make much more sense to restrict sugar, carbs and specially wheat.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 6:17 AM on April 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

No, but you should absolutely exercise if you want to be happy, healthy and long lived. So watch what you eat if you ALSO want to be trim.
posted by zwemer at 3:44 PM on April 23, 2017

No, but you should absolutely exercise if you want to be happy, healthy and long lived.

I don't go in for a lot of hippie-woo, despite owning birkenstocks and a subaru, but there's something about really getting the lymph and other non-circulatory system fluids moving around with 30 minutes of hard cardio that really opens you up.
posted by mikelieman at 4:02 PM on April 23, 2017

#slvox - they're just putting it this way for the clicks. Anybody who's been paying attention knows that exercise alone isn't enough to make you lose weight, that genetics and diet are also involved, and that exercise has tons of health benefits.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:45 PM on April 26, 2017

It also occurs to me that while exercise may not be great for weight loss specifically, I could totally believe that it still works for making people more attractive, especially in person. I don't think my body has changed a ton since I started working out, but I do think it's given me more confidence and energy and I suspect it's also changed other subtle things about how I carry and present myself. That's probably even more important as one gets older, since exercise is by all accounts a pretty good way of throwing caltrops and oil in the path of age-related degeneration. So there are even other totally shallow good reasons to exercise unrelated to body composition, if you are low-key kinda vain like me, lol.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:39 PM on April 29, 2017

I'm really not aware of many people urging exercise only as a means of weight control.

That's kind of been a solid message that junk food and fast food companies push: Enjoy our products without any consequences as long as you exercise. Remember, they're trying to sell a burger or a soda, so they don't want to push a moderation message as strongly as they do a message about exercise with full enjoyment of their products.
posted by FJT at 1:08 PM on May 14, 2017

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