Devin Ellsworth


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Why Exercise Won’t Help You Lose Weight

You can’t work off that piece of cake.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but exercise will not save you this holiday season. Nor will it save you the rest of the year.

The 80/20 rule for weight loss states that losing weight is 80% about the food you eat and 20% about exercise. I am not suggesting that exercise does not play a role — it still gets 20% after all. Yet in this country programs like P90x and Insanity, and shows like The Biggest Loser consistently send the message that in order to lose weight all you have to do is workout like crazy.

This isn’t the way.

Let’s consider the case of The Biggest Loser contestants to illustrate why exercise wont help you lose weight. The show takes a group of obese adults away from their normal lives and puts them in a house together, where they spend the majority of their day sweating and pushing themselves to the sound of a personal trainer yelling at them to go harder still. No new habits are taught — just extremes.  The act of living in a house away from your normal life with strangers, TV cameras, and personal trainers is an extreme situation itself.

To be fair, most of the contestants lose a lot of weight. I mean, at initial glance, the numbers are impressive.

But another number from the show is impressive — the rate at which most contestants gain it back. The first ever show winner reported gaining back 32 pounds in just 5 days after the show, from merely drinking water. That’s right, 32 pounds of water weight, back instantly once healthier habits were resumed.

There is a reason contestants gain the weight back. Extreme situations are great for television, and great for producing short-term flashy results, at the expense of your overall long-term health.

“Anything you do temporarily for weight loss will only lead to temporary results.”

Exercising at extreme levels is a temporary solution, because most of us can’t afford to work out for 6 hours a day for very long. Programs like P90x, CrossFit, and the Biggest Loser all advocate extreme (but temporary) periods of high volume exercise. You lose weight in the short term. But the second you quit the program (which everyone does except those who are paid to workout that much) the weight starts to come back.

You have learned no new habits. Your old habits return. Most importantly, you didn’t change the way you were eating. So during the period of intense exercise you were temporarily burning more calories than you were taking in, hence the weight loss.

When the exercise stops, so does the weight loss. You still eat the same way as before, and now you aren’t burning the necessary calories.

Burning off your food is hard. To burn off a piece of cake you would have to go for a nice hour-long walk. Doesn’t sound too bad! But what about everything else you ate that day? You only have so much free time to exercise! Don’t count on working off your mistakes on the plate. Instead, correct the plate, and exercise only to maintain health.

[themify_box style=”light-green” ]Remember: temporary solutions produce temporary results. This is true of fad exercise programs and fad diets. 100% of your energy should be devoted to habits you can practice everyday indefinitely. So keep exercising for your health, but don’t crank it up and expect it to produce lasting weight loss.[/themify_box]

Leave a Comment!

That’s a great question, and researchers have tested this! They compared the arterial health of a group of sedentary vegans with a group of endurance athletes eating the Standard American Diet (SAD). So basically you have people eating a very clean diet but not exercising AT ALL, and people eating a poor diet and exercising like crazy (running 48 miles a week for 21 years).

They found that the arteries of the vegans were healthier than the exercisers! It appears all the exercise in the world can’t make up for a poor diet. And, I would contend that changing your diet is far easier than committing to running two marathons a week for 21 years 🙂

But, it’s best to eat healthy AND exercise, and if the vegans in the study were also exercisers, I’d imagine they’d see even healthier arteries.

So, all factors included, I’d still say its around 80/20 diet to exercise for health. And my post is not to disparage exercise — it still gets 20%! It is still incredibly important! It just should not be your primary strategy toward health or toward weight loss…

You can see a review of the study I mentioned here:

This is a great reminder, but as you allude to in the post, there is more to health than just your weight. How does the 80/20 rule change when considering things like heart disease, bone health, diabetes, emotional well-being, etc. as opposed to just weight? If you had to lump all human health factors together and assign a diet/exercise impact ratio, would it be more like 50/50, or perhaps more like 90/10?