Weight loss is one of the top reasons people start an exercise routine. Yet, misconceptions about how to work out for weight loss are rampant. “Weight-loss strategies seem to be the most confusing aspect of health and wellness,” says Mike Clancy, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. “It’s not surprising, given the amount of misinformation circulating the internet and social media.”
Ahead, trainers explain what people tend to get wrong about exercising for weight loss, plus what it really takes to see results.
Exercise has so many health benefits, so it’s a worthy pursuit whether or not weight loss is on your mind. Often people think they can lose weight by starting a new workout routine — without incorporating any other changes. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, this isn’t the case.
“You must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight, and no amount of exercise can change those laws of thermodynamics,” says Parker Condit, lead trainer at Modo Bio. In other words, you must take in less energy (food) than you expend. Exercise can help shift that balance, but it’s not the most effective way. Think of it this way: “Exercising for one hour a day, seven days per week accounts for less than 5% of the total time in a given week,” Condit says. What you do in that other 95% of the time is important, too.
Luckily, there are plenty of other strategies to try. “Increasing non-exercise activities throughout the day can be very influential, especially in the beginning of someone’s weight-loss journey,” Condit says. “Some examples of these are walking, fidgeting, standing instead of sitting, and just generally moving more throughout the day.” Of course, nutrition plays a major role, too.
Sometimes, people worry that if they’re not drenched after a workout, they’ve wasted their time. Good news: “Sweating is merely the body’s way to control body temperature, not an indicator of how many calories or how much fat you’re burning,” says Katelyn Barrons, a certified personal trainer. “If your gym keeps the air conditioning on high, you’re still burning just as many calories as you would in a warm gym.”
What’s more, slower-paced workouts that don’t necessarily leave you dripping sweat, like walking uphill on a treadmill or lifting weights, are still key for burning calories, keeping your metabolism high, and helping your body hang onto lean muscle mass.
“Some people are quick to conclude that if they’re not feeling sore after a workout, they haven’t made any improvements and simply wasted their time,” notes Ben Walker, a personal trainer at Anywhere Fitness. In other words, people subscribe to the idea of “no pain, no gain.” This might stem from the misconception that muscle soreness means you’ve burned fat.
In reality, whether or not you feel sore after a workout has to do with how your muscles adapt to being challenged in new ways, Walker explains. Anytime you try a new exercise or increase the weight or resistance you use with an exercise, you’re likely to feel sore afterward.
But, as your body adapts to your routine, you’ll find yourself getting sore less often. This is a sign that your muscles can handle more work, but it doesn’t mean you’re not getting the benefits of the workouts you’re doing. We know the best way to get stronger is to increase the difficulty of your workouts over time, a principle called progressive overload. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be sore every time you make your workouts harder or that you should use soreness as a gauge for how effective your workouts are. Plus, being sore all the time can make working out less appealing, which could throw you off your planned workout schedule.
The bottom line? “Focus on increasing the workload and not the pain, and you will achieve your weight-loss goals,” Walker advises.
If you’ve ever been tempted to “work off” a big meal, you’re not alone. But, according to Clancy, this strategy is both unhelpful and ineffective. “A typical, intense, 1-hour workout burns 300–500 calories,” Clancy says. “We all know it’s very easy to consume well over 500 calories in an indulgence.” But even more important: “It’s exhausting to constantly try to offset our splurges with grueling exercise.” Instead, it’s better to enjoy your indulgences, then move on — a strategy that’ll help you maintain a healthy relationship with exercise.
Surprisingly, more exercise is not always better when the goal is weight loss. “Your body needs rest to recover, so if you are constantly breaking down your muscles, you are never giving them time to repair,” explains Rebecca Louise, a mindset and fitness coach and author of “It Takes Grit.” “As your muscles repair, they get stronger, which means more muscle mass and therefore more calories burned daily.”
What’s more, too much exercise can lead to overtraining, which can make weight loss harder. “Our body produces a hormone called cortisol when it feels stress,” says Jennifer Nagel, an online coach and certified personal trainer. “You probably know it better as your flight-or-fight response. For the most part, it’s a good thing. If you’re outrunning zombies or a bear is attacking you, your body responds so that you can react quickly.”
But too much exercise can lead to excess cortisol production, which, in turn, causes you to eat more and sleep less, sinking your weight-loss efforts, Nagel explains. Her advice: ‘Make sure you incorporate 1–2 rest days each week to give your body a chance to recover.”
“A lot of people think that because they burn more calories during a 45-minute cardio session than in a 45-minute lifting session, they should just continue to do cardio because that will give them a maximum calorie burn,” says Drew Manning, a personal trainer and founder of Fit2Fat2Fit. “What they’re not factoring in, though, is EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), which is the concept of continuing to burn calories after the exercise is done.”
Not only does lifting weights build muscle and help you retain it as you lose fat, but it helps you continue to burn calories long after your workouts are over, Manning says. “I’m not saying to throw cardio out the window, but don’t forget to get those lifting sessions in as well.”
If you’ve ever done crunches to lose belly fat, you’ve fallen prey to this myth. The truth is, you can’t spot-reduce fat in any area of your body. “The more active muscle tissues we have in our body at one time, the more we burn fat,” Walker says. “That’s why it’s very important to train your whole body and not one specific muscle group where you want to target weight loss. For example, if you were to do 100 crunches a day, you’ll see improvements in definition, but nothing in comparison to the person who designs a fitness program that combines fat-burning exercises along with a shorter, more effective session for targeting the abdominal muscles.”
Check out “Workout Routines” in the MyFitnessPal app to discover and log workouts or build your own with exercises that fit your goals.