Can You Lose Fat Through Exercise Alone?

Lauren Bedosky
by Lauren Bedosky
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Can You Lose Fat Through Exercise Alone?

One of the hardest parts about starting a fat-loss program is knowing you won’t be able to eat a lot of the foods you enjoy. At least, not in the same quantities. For this reason, some people try to achieve their fat-loss goal through exercise alone, hoping they’ll burn enough calories during their workout to make up for poor diet choices.

WHY EXERCISE ISN’T ENOUGH

First of all, exercise tends to increase appetite, says Tiffany Chag, RD, a sports dietitian at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. If you’re not paying attention to what and how much you’re eating, you could take in more calories per day than you were getting before you even started your exercise program. “We don’t really realize we’re doing it,” Chag says. Over time, this could lead to stalled results or even weight gain.

HORMONES

In a recent study, a group of lean, overweight and obese women followed an eight-week exercise-only program. Not only did the women see zero fat reduction, but appetite hormone levels increased significantly in overweight and obese participants. These hormonal changes could explain the lack of fat-loss results, according to researchers.

THE CALORIES PARADOX

In addition, exercise only burns a small percentage of calories in the overall scheme of things. A vigorous 30-minute strength session, for example, only burns roughly 223 calories for a 155-pound person, according to Harvard Health. That’s the approximate equivalent of a couple of tablespoons of olive oil or a protein bar.

Granted, exercise — and strength training, in particular — will have you burning calories long after your workout is over, but it may not be as much as you think. “People often get a false sense of how many calories they’re actually burning [during exercise],” says Steve Moore, MS, lead physiologist and health coach with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing LiveWell Fitness Center at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

All too often, we assume we’re burning more calories than we actually are, which makes it easier to reach for higher calorie foods. In fact, we can overestimate the calories burned by as much as four times the actual amount, leading us to eat 2–3 times our caloric expenditure from that workout, according to the results of a study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.

In other words, just because the display on the treadmill or elliptical says you burned 300 calories, doesn’t mean you actually did: “Those [machines] are notorious for being wrong,” Moore says.

THE BOTTOM LINE

You might lose fat through exercise alone, but you’ll have far greater success if you pair your exercise with a healthy diet.

In a study published in Obesity, overweight and obese postmenopausal women who followed a combined diet and aerobic exercise program lost more weight over the course of one year than women who followed a diet- or exercise-only program. Still, the women who followed the diet-only program lost significantly more weight than the exercise-only group (8.5% versus 2.4%), and only slightly less than women who followed the combined program (8.5% versus 10.8% for the combined approach).

Don’t think you have to completely overhaul your diet or add crazy amounts of exercise to see results. Set achievable goals, like adding one extra serving of vegetables per day or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and focus on meeting those goals for a few weeks before adding in other changes, Chag says. “[Your goal] has to be something that’s measurable, but set the bar so low that you can’t fail.”

About the Author

Lauren Bedosky
Lauren Bedosky

Lauren is a freelance fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Men’s HealthRunner’s WorldSHAPE and Women’s Running. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with her husband and their three dogs.

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8 responses to “Can You Lose Fat Through Exercise Alone?”

  1. Avatar Effn says:

    My most successful strategy included HIIT and eliminating added sweeteners from my diet. May not work for everyone, but it was great for me.

  2. Avatar erictomlin says:

    At the risk of sounding like an advert for MyFitnessPal, I think that weighing your food and tracking your calorie intake is one of the most important things you can do. The MyFitnessPal app is great for this. I started doing this and was shocked to find out what reasonable portion sizes actually look like. This also helps you realize how many calories you are consuming every day and encourages you to think twice before sticking that into your mouth. You begin to ask yourself “do I REALLY want these 400 calories?” instead of just wolfing them down without even thinking about it.

  3. Avatar Caitlyn Baldo says:

    I’m really curious if the “workout only” group had better overall health from a cardiovascular stand point, even though they were heavier… That part of the research info is missing here. While diet and exercise are best combined, I tend to feel like exercise benefits me more than diet if life isn’t allowing for both for 2-4 weeks here and there. I carry extra weight and eat very clean whole foods, strict portion control benefits me, but exercise always feels more beneficial.

  4. Before one discounts the amount of calories burned (‘vigorous 30-minute strength session, for example, only burns roughly 223 calories”), it should be noted that 223 calories a day time 7 days a week results in 1561 calories burned. Since 3500 calories equals a pound of fat, burning 1561 per week would be not quite 1/2 pound per week (.446)….not that bad. The combination of diet and exercise does seem to be the best result in terms of weight loss. But improving physical stamina is still worth the effort…or so it would seem.

    • Avatar Bart says:

      Or that you will be ravenously hungry after a workout. It’s what you would do if you wanted to be able to eat as much as possible. Read a Gary Taubes book.

  5. Avatar Dani says:

    When I was weightlifting and training at CrossFit gym, only once a week for an hour for 4 yrs… when I stopped I gained 2 inches in my waist and 15#s
    So I believe that exercise is much more important that we think…

    • Avatar Bart says:

      Not what the article said st all. It’s a good way to maintain health, and a horrible way of dismissing anyone with a weight problem as “lazy”. They are not. Hormones are key, cutting out sugar and processed carbs is key. Excercise is great, but it’s not a good strategy to lose. Diet and insulin are key to losing weight.

      • Avatar Fred Jaeger says:

        Bart has it exactly right. Obesity is primarily a fat-storage hormone issue, namely insulin being the primary culprit having been released by the consumption of carbohydrates. The answer is out there; it’s just hard to face. Carbs are killing us. I highly recommend Gary Taube’s book “Good Calories / Bad Calories.” It talks in depth about the “calories in / calories out” fallacy and how exercise is good for us but NOT the key to weight loss. Jason Fung’s “The Obesity Code” is also essential reading in my opinion.

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