Can Exercise Alone Cause Weight Loss?

Why do you exercise? Really. Why do you exercise?

I was a big avoider of exercises of all kinds when I was overweight. I considered walking the mall while on a shopping trip to be my exercise for the week and would stop in the Food Court to fill up on foods from coffee shops like this one and cookie stores.

Food at a mall

I’d sit in the mall chairs and munch on a pastry, drink a coke, and complain how much my feet hurt. But inside my mind I would be thinking, “I’m doing good on my diet. I just walked for 15 minutes in a row.”

I tried to think of ways to sit most of the day and the thought of putting any physical effort into my life made me tired.

So I sat as much as possible and tried to avoid exerting myself.

It was a sad existence.

When I finally decided to lose weight that final time, one of the three things I committed to was regular exercise. And committed I was.

I exercised six or seven days a week for the entire 14 months it took me to lose a total of 158 pounds. The only days I missed were ones where I was sick or the kids were sick. I exercised on vacations, on work related trips – everywhere.

But did exercise really affect my weight loss? It’s an interesting concept and one that I think about a lot. I do think that exercise positively affected my weight loss efforts. Definitely. But I also think I could have lost weight without exercise because I had done that before.

Back when I was early married and had put on about 40 pounds, I went to Weight Watchers and lost 22 pounds. I did not exercise once and still lost the weight. Sadly, I put back on the 22 pounds and added another few pounds to go with it. I put back on the weight because I had not changed my relationship to food, had not dealt with the emotions and excuses surrounding my food choices, and did not change my lifestyle.

Exercise became an important part of my lifestyle change. I’ve continued to exercise six days a week for 15 years. Of course I miss a day here and a day there because of unforeseen circumstances, but for the most part, I am extremely consistent. (Even in rainy weather)

Walking in the rain


However, I do not rely on exercise to keep me at a healthy weight nor did I rely on exercise as the primary means for weight loss.

Exercise enhances your weight loss and weight maintenance efforts, but rarely causes either unless you pair exercise with a lowered calorie, healthy diet.

I see it all the time. Friends or acquaintances ask me why they are not losing weight. Although there certain reasons to pinpoint when answering this question, one reason I see for their lack of progress is that they are relying too heavily on exercise to lose weight. Sometimes they rationalize a bad diet because “I worked out.” Other times they eat more than they should because they exercised.  Still other times they simply do not realize how many calories they are burning. In most cases, they overestimate.

I exercised in conjunction with a healthy diet and the people I know who have lost weight and kept it off did the same thing. They worked out consistently and ate a healthy, calorie appropriate diet. As a side note, I also know people who have lost weight without exercise because of physical limitations but I cannot think of a single person who ate whatever they wanted and lost weight simply because they exercised. (I’m sure there are people out there, but I’ve never personally met them.)

I exercised because it made me stronger, helped me burn calories, and improved my health. I did not exercise just to lose weight because I knew that the 200 to 250 calories I was burning each day by taking a walk were terrific, but not enough to help me drop a substantial amount of weight.

What do you think? Is exercise enough to really lose weight and keep it off or is it one component of a healthy lifestyle that includes being at a healthy weight? Diane

29 thoughts on “Can Exercise Alone Cause Weight Loss?

  1. Tanvee says:

    Hey Diane, I think there has to be a balance between exercising and eating healthy, I initally lost a lot of pounds only by changing my diet, but since I started exercising I think because I got stronger it motivated me more to keep going. I think like you said only exercise won’t work only diet does work..but exercise helps to stay motivated.

  2. kwithme says:

    I also agree. I lost 40 lbs 4 years ago (the final total was 80lbs gone). I walked every day for at least 20 mins. That was it. I would occasionally do some crunches or push ups. Gradually, my walks lengthened to 60 mins, but most of the loss was when my walks were shorter. When friends and acquaintances tell me about trying to lose weight so they are starting an exercise plan, I praise them because exercise is great but then I remind them to watch their food really closely because that is where I saw the difference. I also think that intense exercise (distance running, heavy lifting, cross-fit) can be hard on your appetite. I am frequently really hungry after a hard workout and I have to be careful not to overeat and to get the right nutrients so that I am not left craving something. I am a lot hungrier than the 150 cals that a lifting session burns or the 300 that a run burns.

  3. Jodi says:

    I always tell people this when they first start losing weight it’s more important to focus on learning to cook and healthy eating than exercise. Change one habit at a time! For me, working out makes me feel good and then I’m less likely to go for sugary foods or binge, but it does little for actual weight loss. This is such an important point that people don’t get!

  4. Susan says:

    Hi Diane,

    Restricting calories alone causes small losses for me, but combing it with vigorous exercise is WAY better. I know that if I exercise moderately, like walking, I still have smaller losses. But a 45 minute jog or 90 minutes of tennis make huge differences. I actually don’t feel like I’ve worked out/improved my health if the exercise hasn’t exerted me enough. And I definitely exercise now (the weight has already been lost) to keep the awesome muscles in my legs and the terrificcardio that allows me to run an impromptu three blocks when the baby drops a toy and I didn’t notice at first.

    Plus, at a more extreme weight, my mobility was awful and my hormones were all over the place. Daily, vigorous exercise has helped with that, as well as helping me think more clearly.


  5. Kyra says:

    What I have learned between my own experience, and also getting certified as a personal trainer, is that food is for losing weight, exercise is for making your body more shapely and for feeling better physically. The caloric burn from exercise is so small even when you work really hard, you can undo it in a single latte. But the changes it causes in your cardiovascular system, your muscle tone, even your skin tone, is worth it. For someone like me who seems to be battling physical pain as well, on days I exercise I don’t ache. When I miss it, I KNOW I’ve missed it. Exercise can be slimming however, it can make the difference between being 130 lbs in a size 8 and 130 lbs in a size 4. So, it has its place, but when it comes to the number on the scale food is king! 🙂

  6. Tracy says:

    Hi Diane,
    When I lost weight last time, I spent countless hours walking on my treadmill – in conjunction with a low carb diet. I’m not convinced it was that helpful – and it was boring! This time, I read about interval training and thought I’d try it. I started last March walking and running (on my treadmill) and have found it makes a great difference – especially in my body composition.

    I’ve worked my way up to more running and less walking in between, and I truly look forward to it. Just this week I completed 2 miles in 32 minutes 🙂 I’ve also started using myfitnesspal to keep track of calories in and calories out – something I’ve NEVER done before! I definitely see how this works now – especially as my body adjusts and needs fewer calories just to function.

    I don’t think I would have lost 60 pounds in the past year if I hadn’t been running/walking. I’m the loss would have been much much slower – and my hips wouldn’t have transformed/shrunk the way that they have!

  7. HappinessSavouredHot says:

    Some say you get leaner in the kitchen, and I think it’s partly true for sure.

    However, by exercising you make sure you burn the excess. Very active people can eat a lot and not gain an ounce.

    And if you do strength work (i.e. lift weights, etc.) you build muscle, which in turn helps you burn calories AT REST. Ain’t that wonderful? 🙂

  8. Kim says:

    I think it has to be a combination of diet and exercise. I don’t workout to lose weight but I know that if I have put on a few pounds and want to change that I have to make some dietary changes even with all of my working out.

  9. kwithme says:

    I already responded but I thought of something else. One of the benefits of exercise while losing weight FOR ME, is that I am doing something. Instead of not doing something. It feel proactive, like I crossed something off the list. And that is a big motivator for me. Changing my food is fine but I don’t get that burst of accomplishment by eating less (even though that is what I need to do).

    I do have lots of other benefits from exercising but that was a psychological one that surprised me.

  10. Marc says:

    Imagine an obese body as a balloon filled with water. Now pour the water out. The stretched out balloon didn’t have any wrinkles or sag when it was full. Now it does. That is kind of what happens with our skin if we lose weight rapidly and do not exercise along the way in the diet process. Now there are plenty of fat athletics that exercise daily. But they are not trying to lose weight. Exercise alone will not cause you to lose weight, but it can help with your skin tone along the way.

  11. Caron says:

    I continue to exercise because I want to be as healthy as I can be as I get older. I did exercise while losing weight, but I don’t believe it was much of a factor in my losing. It took me nine months to lose just 32 pounds with Weight Watchers which they assured me was for the best. Honestly, I think losing slowly benefits Weight Watchers more than it does their clients.

    Since I see very heavy people in the gym going all out with their exercise, I believe that they are trying their best to lose without changing their eating habits. I’ve proved to myself that it won’t work for me.

  12. Janifer says:

    I just want to support what you said. In reality, the calories that are burned with like walking is not that much to ever allow much more food. Of course, anything certainly helps but its looking more and more like exercise is more for the good of our bodies than it is so much to lose weight. I think a combination of watching food intake and exercise would help to lose faster. One of my times of dieting, I cut back and walked lots and lost my extra weight so I know it works. I am just amazed at how you have become like a different person from how your old days were at the mall!

  13. Janis says:

    It’s just too easy to wipe out any calorie burn with a snack. Exercise is psychologically important — and maintaining a healthy weight starts above the neck — but as a weight loss tool, it’s nearly useless. I think it gets people outside, away from the kitchen, alone with their thoughts, feeling the effects of healthy weight maintenance, and for those who liked the part of watching the scale drop day by day, it gives them another number to focus on when they hit maintenance. “My splits are great!” “I’m under an 11 minute mile!” “I ran a personal best!” “I just biked one mile further!”

    But when one milkshake can undo a ten-mile run …

  14. Paula says:

    I agree it’s the food but more muscle burns more calories and the equal amount of weight in muscle versus fat is like night and day. You can be a much tighter smaller package if you work out than if you just sit on the couch and eat your smaller calorie diet. Diet is for weight and exercise is for fitness.

  15. JenB says:

    There is a common saying that “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet” and although I always tried out out-cardio my calories, it didn’t work. I originally lost weight (in 2006) mostly by introducing exercise into my until then pretty stationary life. I tried watching what I ate a bit, but I was mostly focused on exercise. I kept up my exercise for years, but the weight crept back on. Mid-May of this year, I started counting calories IN, and controlling them and I’ve been seeing success. I do still exercise … for fitness, for the feeling, and I do think it is adding to the weight loss too!

  16. Hope K says:

    I do not think exercise alone can cause weight loss. Well, maybe just a little bit. I see it as an adjunct practice to my diet in my whole weight loss plan. Exercise can speed up a metabolism that’s been slowed down by age or medicines. So, I think it’s really important to exercise, but that alone will not cause significant weight loss. Diet is the main component, I think.

  17. Dr. J says:

    I like to exercise because it makes me feel good! It’s possible to use exercise as a main way of losing weight, but it is very challenging because most people who try that fail because overuse injuries eventually defeat them.

  18. Andrea@WellnessNotes says:

    I think there are many people who overestimate the effect of exercise on weight loss. When I lost a lot of weight, it was mainly because of the changes I made to my diet. And I had to be actually careful because certain types of exercise made me very hungry, and it was hard to stay within my calorie limit. But exercise certainly makes me feel good and muscle definition is great.

  19. That Guy says:

    Exercise, cardio in particular, can be an accelerator but can’t be depended on as a primary weight loss tool for long-term success. I posted the quote below to my Facebook business page last week, and I stand with it:

    “Fact: The term cardio is relatively new in the fitness vernacular, and is a more recent phenomenon in the concept of fitness.

    As recently as 25 years ago, few fitness facilities even had cardio equipment, and any they might have was scarce. Despite this, people have been losing weight successfully for thousands of years by simply retooling their eating habits.

    Make no mistake, I am a full-on cardio junkie. I love the mental clarity that my rigorous daily cardio brings into my life and into my psyche. Hard cardio is a daily reawakening of my senses, my spirit, and helps me set everything right with the world – if only for a while.

    Cardio is not, however, a requirement to lose weight, get lean or to stay lean, though it can accelerate the process when used in conjunction with improved eating.

    Fat loss takes place first and foremost at the dinner table, in the grocery store, and in restaurants.

    Every time person puts a piece of food in his mouth one of two signals goes off:

    1) This is good for me, and I’m going to eat it.
    2) This isn’t good for me, and I’m going to eat it anyway.

    After that, it’s all about choices.”

  20. PlumPetals says:

    The only way I can lose weight is through really, really watching my diet and exercising regularly. Moderate exercise, however, does not work for me. I’ve tried just walking for 1 hour 5-6 days a week. It doesn’t work. I have to lift weights and put some real intensity behind my workouts to see any progress. I’m just glad I don’t mind putting in the time and effort to cook healthy meals and workout. However, the slow progress does get frustrating.

  21. Jody - Fit at 55 says:

    Easy answer – most cases – no. You can’t out train a bad diet & in my humble opinion & based on my life, you can’t out train even a good one. I need n=both & the older you get, the more you need both PLUS food is really 75+% of it & exercise is needed for the rest plus to be healthy as we age.. bone & cardio wise… 🙂

  22. JP says:

    I agree that exercise alone isn’t enough; it’s much easier not to eat 200 extra calories than to burn off 200 calories. I know that cardio can help you achieve the calorie deficit needed to lose a pound, but you have to be mindful of what and how much you are eating no matter what. Even if you’re not obese, an unhealthy diet can lead to health problems later on.

    That said, I’ve lost weight through diet many times — I’ve been overweight/obese since middle school! — only to lapse back into old habits. This time, though, I focused on fitness rather than pounds. In May, I started an exercise program for other benefits (stress and anxiety) that, before long, encouraged me to start keeping track of what I ate, originally so that I wouldn’t feel bogged down during my exercise class — if I ate less sugar and unhealthy fats or just ate too much, period, I wouldn’t feel up to exercising. (At the same time, if I ate too little, I’d have no energy!) When I noticed how much better my workouts went on days when I ate better, I began to eat that way on days when I didn’t work out, too. My main problems were eating too big of portions (i.e. eating what my husband eats!), not remembering when I’d already had a snack, eating when bored or sad, and not counting the calories in beverages like lattes and smoothies towards my total. I began reading the labels, keeping track of calories, and wound up working with a registered dietitian to develop a nutrition plan not just to lose weight but to feel and stay healthy.

    Basically, exercise is a good thing, but exercise paired up with healthy, mindful changes in eating becomes a great thing.

    • JP says:

      Oops! Make that “if I ate MORE sugar and unhealthy fats” — when I ate less of those, I DID feel up to exercising. 🙂

  23. Megan says:

    Great discussion; it’s really interesting reading all the opinions as much as the article.
    I agree with what is being said, diet over exercise will get you to lose weight- but that doesn’t mean diet is more important than exercise.
    I believe that it is not about the number on the scale but how healthy and fit you are that is most important. (How many of us have that one skinny ‘fat’ friend?) There are a lot of ways to reach that number on the scale (radical diets, pills, liquids, surgery) that doesn’t make us healthy.
    Diet and exercise together are the only way to prevent the associated diseases and health problems.

  24. Anne @ Domesblissity says:

    My biggest problem is when the kids are on vacation. I’m a single mother so don’t have any support. Sometimes it seems like too much effort to round them up to take them for a walk and a power walk on your own is nothing like a walk with 2 kids in tow. I always have an excuse for everything though. I also say I’m going to walk in the backyard but the stresses that go with the children get to me so I have a lay down instead. They are back at school tomorrow so I hope I can get back into my routine.

    Anne xx

  25. Lindsay says:

    I have same experience as yours. I went to several weight loss treatment, acupuncture, Dietitian doctor, infra red treatment and 20 more weight loss treatment without doing exercise. I lose my weight. Even faster than what I am doing now, but I feel weak all the time Food is like enemy to me and I gain more than all the weight I loss. Now I change my weight loss plan. I start exercise and eat healthy food. By exercise I can control my appetite and losing weight without feeling weak and sick all the time.

  26. blackhuff says:

    I feel that with exercise alone, weight loss can happen to some extent but not the results that anyone wants to see. For more rapid and better results, you need to pair it with a good nutritional plan.

  27. Lynne says:

    I think you are totally right. I’ve spent much of the last 20 years overweight and / or obese. In that time I have run a marathon, 4 half marathons, many 10ks, an olympic distance triathlon and 15 sprint triathlons. I never lost weight, in fact marathon training caused me to gain 10 pounds. It’s about food 99% of the time, and i get that now. Change your food intake, your relationship with FOOD and you will lose weight. I finally get that and now I am a healthy weight.

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