Exercise till the Cows Come Home, you still won’t Lose Weight without a Healthy Diet

For decades, we’ve been mentally trained to believe that burning calories through exercise is the number one priority when trying to lose weight. The more exercise you do, the more calories you’ll burn, thus the more weight you’ll lose. Numerous research studies are now contradicting that claim.

The ‘more exercise = more calories burned’ theory would suggest that we can actually eat whatever we want. Powered donuts for breakfast, cheese steak hoagie for lunch, pizza for dinner and ice cream for dessert – what’s the problem? We my consume 5,000 calories a day, but so long as we exercise enough to burn those calories, we can maintain or even lose weight. Right?


According to many recent studies, including one published in Current Biology last week entitled, “Constrained Total Energy Expenditure and Metabolic Adaptation to Physical Activity in Adult Humans”, there’s only so much exercise can do to help you lose weight.

Research suggests that caloric burn will hit a plateau at some point, based on the previous and current level of energy expenditure. If someone is going from a sedentary state to walking or jogging a few miles a day, the caloric burn will be noticeably beneficial (although not nearly enough to burn off the daily diet mentioned above), but with more strenuous exercise, especially for a person who is already active, there are only so many calories the body is willing to give up.

Exercising not enough to Lose Weight

The study involved 332 individuals from different regions of the world (Africa, Jamaica and the US), each with different health-wise lifestyles, varying from sedentary to highly active. Each spent 7 days equipped with an accelerometer – much like the popular Fitbit and other wearable fitness technology on the market today.

The research showed that those who were more active burned more calories, but only to a certain extent. Those who moved around the most would soon hit a plateau, ultimately failing to burn more calories (or lose more weight) than their less-active co-subjects.

The lead author on the study, Herman Pontzer, an associate professor of anthropology at Hunter College, explained the results. While the study did not document exactly what type of activity the subjects were undergoing – they were merely following their everyday routine – Pontzer said the level at which caloric burn halts could be compared to a typical exercise routine, such as “walking a couple miles a day, like to work and back, taking the stairs instead of the elevator and trying to exercise a couple times a week”.

This is just the latest in a throng of studies that have tuned up similar results. Pontzer said the human body wants to hold on to enough energy to sustain itself, meaning no matter how much exercise you do, you simply can’t force it to burn more calories. “Our bodies work very hard to keep it the same,” said Pontzer.

Exercise is a “really important” tool for overall health, said Pontzer, but ultimately, the ‘exercise more to lose weight’ theory is being quickly debunked. A more appropriate summation might be, “If you want to lose weight, you probably ought to focus on changing your diet and watching how much you eat,” he said.


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