Weight fluctuates. That’s a fact of life. But when the waistband gets tighter or you feel like its time to slim down, you might start telling yourself, “I’ll just exercise more.” You start getting in 10,000 steps more frequently, doing crunches and push-ups in the morning, and even swap out the elevator steps. Still, the needle on the scale doesn’t budge, and your clothes are getting looser. What gives?
You’ll notice that when fitness professionals or doctors give advice on losing weight, they say, “diet and exercise,” not just one or the other. It’s a trap to believe that just diet or just exercise can help you lose fat and keep it off, especially if you have a diet rich in fast food and sugary sweets.
Lesson one: You can’t lose fat with just exercise. Now, let’s talk about why and what you should be doing if you want to slim down and tone up.
Fat Loss Myth Busting
Prior to talking about why exercise alone will result in less than stellar fat loss, we need to bury some myths. While there is a sliver of truth in the following myths, the reasons most people believe in them is misplaced:
- Exercise makes you overeat.
- Exercise will only help if you’re burning thousands of calories.
- Exercise alone doesn’t burn enough calories to help you lose weight.
You’ve heard these before.
Exercise makes you overeat.
This myth stems from the idea that because you burn calories while exercising, you get hungry, and then you eat to regain the calories that you lost. Yes, this is a reality—you move, you burn calories, and you get hungry.
But when you look at this through the lens of science, you see that exercise and hunger have a different relationship. A study done at Loughborough University looked at the hunger hormone ghrelin and how exercise affects the production of the hormone. Participants were split into 3 groups—one group ran at an easy pace for 60 minutes, the second group did HIIT on the treadmill for 30 minutes, and the control group didn’t exercise at all. The research concluded that exercising controlled the release of ghrelin, and those who ran reported less hunger than those who didn’t.
Other studies have concluded the same thing: Exercise makes you feel more full on fewer calories.
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Exercise will only help if you’re burning thousands of calories.
This is the myth that has perpetuated the idea that doing hours of cardio will burn hundreds of calories and thus help you lean out.
Sure, it works for burning off weight; but it’s not just fat that you’re burning. Rather than a lean, toned body, you get “skinny fat.” Hours of cardio is counterproductive to building muscle.
Even though resistance training doesn’t burn the same amount of calories as cardio, the muscle that you build is better at burning off more calories over time and has a better effect on your body’s homeostasis.
Exercise alone doesn’t burn enough calories to help you lose weight.
Calorie expenditure, otherwise known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is broken up into 3 components:
- Basal metabolic rate (BMR) – the amount of energy burned at rest.
- Daily non-exercise activity – movement that isn’t classified as exercise, like getting up to use the bathroom.
- Thermic effect of food (TEF) – accounts of 10-15% of your TDEE
You will notice formal exercise is not part of the equation. So, disregarding exercise for a moment, consider the following: 1 pound of fat is equal to 3,500 calories of energy. Therefore, if you want to lose 1 pound of fat, you need to create a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories.
If you need about 2,500 calories to maintain your current weight and eat only 2,000 calories, you can reach that deficit without doing anything else. Then, you decide to add on exercise, burning an extra 400-500 calories a day.
You would lose weight much faster in the above scenario than if you ate 2,500 calories a day and exercise for the same amount of time.
That’s the difference between “diet and exercise” and “just exercise.”
The Truth About Exercise and Weight Loss
With those myths clarified, you can know to understand why exercise alone is not enough to promote weight loss. Exercise burns calories, but it is never enough to burn off what you are consuming. A study from 2014 conducted a meta-analysis that took 8 separate studies that studied weight loss methods. The analysis discovered that between diet-only, exercise-only, and diet-and-exercise programs, the exercise-only programs yielded far fewer results that than other options, both short and long term.
Exercise alone doesn’t create enough of a calorie deficit.
The other problem is your arithmetic. In a similar vein of counting calories and underestimating how much you are eating by 10-percent, most people cannot accurately calculate how many calories their exercise burns. While 30-minutes of vigorous exercise can burn off 350 calories, you won’t be able to keep up that pace every single day, resulting in days where you burn fewer calories than others.
If you can only workout 2-3 days a week, you are better off cutting soda and donuts out of the diet, which saves you the same amount of calories that you burn.
How To Burn Fat Effectively
To turn your body into a fat-burning powerhouse, you need to combine diet and exercise correctly and stick with the program you create for yourself. This involves cutting down your calorie intake while making changes to your diet (such as cutting out junk food) and using cardio and strength training to build muscle, burn calories, and melt fat.
A mixture of low-intensity, moderate-intensity, and high-intensity activities can be done 3-4 times a week in conjunction with a diet that creates a 200-300 calories deficit. Intense circuits will help you burn more calories during the workout while lifting weights will preserve metabolically active muscle mass and elevated your BMR.
No, you cannot burn fat with exercise alone. You need a combination of diet and exercise to create enough of a caloric deficit and elevate your metabolism to target fat and burn it off. Follow a precise meal plan, work in compound training, and only do short bursts of cardio. Doing so will result in a lean physique that burns fat instead of muscle in less time than if you relied on exercise alone.