September 08, 2015

Exercise vs. Diet for Weight Loss: Is There Any Reason to Get Off the Couch at ALL?

By Crabby McSlacker

Those of you who are still pissed off at Cranky Fitness for exposing how easy it is to overestimate calories burned by walking may not be happy about some of the information I'm going to discuss in this post.

But as I was following up on an interesting comment that appeared in that last post (thanks JessicaB!) I came across some more depressing research, at least for folks like me who justify caloric indulgence with increased activity. Because according to a bunch of recent health and fitness articles, experts have concluded: when it comes to weight loss, it's pretty much all about diet, not exercise.

A couple examples:  "Exercise Alone Does Not Help in Losing Weight," and "To Lose Weight Eating is Far More Important than Exercising More."

It's not too far a leap to imagine some folks concluding there is almost no point in exercising at all! Especially people who don't like to exercise anyway and are hoping for a free pass to say the hell with it and settle down on the couch with a Lean Cuisine and a crate of Diet Pepsi for a 5 hour Netflix binge-watch.

Do I have some cranky things to say about these articles and the "screw exercise it's useless" school of thought?  Gosh, perhaps I do!

On the other hand, I don't believe in failing to report important research because we don't like what it says. I fail to report important research all the time, but it's out of sheer laziness and ignorance, a far better reason, don't you think? Anyway, more thoughts on the whole Diet vs Exercise debate below.

Plus, Labor Day has come and gone which means it's the beginning of a new season, right? So it would be awesome if any of you were willing to pop down into the comments and check in with what you've been up to over the summer, or what you're dreaming and scheming about these days, or how the heck you feel about life right now.

Why You Should Still Exercise Despite These Annoying Studies.

I won't belabor this, because Cranky Fitness readers totally get it already:  there are a lot of reasons to exercise besides just weight loss.

Like sanity, for one. But there are many others!

So even if those articles are onto something, you ain't off the hook.  There is so much research on the many physical and mental health benefits of exercise, that it would fill a huge, (and strangely gravity-defying), pile of books.

Seriously, there's a TON of research out there.
photo: Library Mistress

The CDC has a list of some of the more obvious health benefits of exercise, and so the Mayo Clinic. (And since they both list "weight loss" as number one we can assume they haven't gotten the memo yet about exercise being useless for such purposes). But new studies come out every day with some new dreadful disease you can better avoid by getting active.

And besides all the long term benefits, anyone who exercises regularly knows dozens of reasons it's a good thing to have in their lives on a daily basis. The ability to feel smugly self-satisfied, for one! I'm pretty sure everyone who is physically able to who skips exercising feels crappier when sedentary. So don't let the weight loss controversy distract you from the obvious: you should be physically active if at all possible.

Why You Should Still Exercise Even if You Are Doing it for Weight Loss.

You can read the articles yourself. Maybe those experts have some research on their side, and some of it may be true for some people. But I have my stubborn opinions, and I'm still not convinced exercise makes no difference when you're trying to shed pounds.

1. Exercise does indeed burn calories, even if not a huge amount.

I'm pretty sure the laws of physics predict that if you use up a bunch of energy in the form of calories, it's gotta come from somewhere.  If you don't eat more to compensate, how is that energy going to materialize?

And yes, exercise can cause people to eat more. However, how much of that is due to real physiological hunger, and how much is due to psychological entitlement issues that you can control?

For all those people who are eating only just enough to stave off hunger, and eating nothing but healthy high-fiber nutritious whole foods, increasing exercise might indeed be useless. If you are getting hungrier because of your activity, and eating the right stuff to make that hunger go away, then yeah, you may need to eat more to compensate.

But how many of us are eating solely healthy food, just enough to keep from being really hungry? And are we compensating because we're starving? Or because we feel "entitled?"

I'd wager for most people, we're eating more than we may need not because we're extra hungry, but because food is DELICIOUS and FUN and ENTERTAINING. And any excuse to eat more, like "I worked out," sounds strangely convincing.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Exercise can be a cue to do less recreational eating, not more.

When we get legitimately hungry from activity, some of us tend to actually make better food choices than we do when we are just thinking how tasty something might be.  I don't tend to "snack" on homemade chicken and vegetable soup, for instance.  It doesn't appeal. But when I'm actually hungry, soup sounds great!

It's my belief that for many people with extra amusement calories in their diets, additional exercise doesn't have to mean increased intake; it will just help you enjoy your calories more because you are actually hungry for them.

2.  Exercise leads to better sleep. 

If you take the studies that say exercise helps you sleep better and combine them with studies that say sleep loss leads to significant weight gain, you end up appreciating how exercise could have some stealth advantages on the weight loss front.

3. Body Composition Affects Metabolic Rate

You don't build significant muscle mass sitting at your computer, unless perhaps you have massive hands, or you've placed your laptop between the ears of a spirited equine who would like to unseat you.

Challenging Office Ergonomics
picture: wikipedia

While some hopelessly optimistic sources have exaggerated the difference muscle mass can make, there is definitely a consensus among experts that muscle does indeed burn more calories than fat throughout the day.  And high-intensity exercise also spikes metabolism for a nice "afterburn" effect. 

Again, if you don't pork out to compensate, these are "free" calories you don't get with a sedentary lifestyle.

3. Exercise Builds a Sense of Self-Efficacy Which Is Crucial to Weight Loss

OK, I'm not going to hunt down the research links, but I know I've seen 'em, and is anyone going to argue with me?

When you are physically active on an ongoing basis, you teach yourself that you have strength, willpower, and determination.  You get the sense at both the conscious and the unconscious level that your identity is one of "a healthy person."  This is not enough, obviously, to magically clean up your eating habits--you have to actively work on that.  But realizing you are a healthy person making shitty food choices, there is often some dissonance about this.  And once you decide to align your dietary habits with the rest of your healthy lifestyle, you've done all this foundational psychological work to make the task easier.

You CAN make changes, even if they're hard at first.

4. There is Way Too Much Anecdotal Evidence of Exercise Helping People Lose Weight.

You may have reaped the benefits yourself, or you know someone who has--the stories are everywhere.  In the last post on walking for weight loss, for example, commenter Megan Olson shared that she lost 80 lbs by walking every day. I don't think all these people are making this shit up, do you?

But, all that said...

Research Does Seem to Say Diet is Hugely Important to Weight Loss

So no matter how much you exercise, if you have weight to lose, use some common sense: you can't keep blowing off bad food choices or eating excessive portions and expect to get results.

But you guys knew that anyway, right?

So, any thoughts on the "exercise makes no difference" research? And what the heck are y'all up to these days?


  1. I was not surprised by the 'walking burns less calories' thing, and I'm not surprised by this either. I do believe that there is anecdotal evidence - a little bit of exercise or small dietary change may completely do the trick for certain individuals. The key word there being 'individuals'. If I have learned one thing about exercise and weight loss (and most other things in life), it is that we are all different. That said, I do believe that exercise has benefits beyond calorie burn. So we should all keep doing it! :)

    What am I up to? Trying to enjoy what is left of the summer, renovating our bathroom, watching my garden disappear bit by bit as the deer visit during the night and eat all my plants. On the positive side, we did have a nice vacation visiting with family and the weather has been fabulous this year.

    1. Oh no, too bad the deer aren't on a diet java chick! But glad you've a had a good vacation and good weather.

      And I totally agree that any study just points to generalities and that individual variation is huge! So we each need to find out what works for US, not people in general.

  2. More anecdotal evidence - the only thing I changed was adding exercise to my life, and I have, for the last 12 years, been at a weight about 30 pounds below my maximum. I suppose being able to say it was the only thing I changed is what matters. I made a point of eating pretty much exactly what I had been eating before - not increasing it because of all the calories I might have burned. And over time, I did change a few things. I switched from white rice to brown; measured stuff more consistently; made sure not to eat something just because it was in front of me - never let myself get uncomfortably full. But all that is pretty easy.

    Now? I have fallen in love with exercise, and I eat more than I did before. Which leads to what I have been doing. We went to Europe for a month, and I spent the first week walking and walking around London. Then we went to Italy, Slovenia, Germany and France, much of which involved cycling up famous passes. We stayed a few places that were determined to give us large, multi-course dinners, which is a long way from what I usually do. And when I got home? My weight basically had not changed at all.

    So I truly don't accept that exercise is not an important element in weight loss and control. It just has to be. I wonder what details might clarify the reason the studies don't find this? Maybe the amount of exercise and the change in calorie consumption is not measured correctly? (Maybe they actually believe the calorie burn counts on those treadmills???) Maybe the exercise isn't enough of a change/challenge to make the difference, or movement doesn't become a fixed part of people's lives. I don't know. I just know exactly what worked for me, and I know I am not the only one.

    After all, looking at it from the other direction, those Tour de France riders need to consume 8000 calories each day as they race just to maintain enough weight and strength to finish the event. There's an obvious connection between activity and adequate/inadequate/excessive calories, so why can't it be used to control weight?

    Besides, as you point out, weight loss is far from the only reason to exercise! Becoming an athlete has changed my life far more than losing weight has. Endorphins: the best addiction in the world!

    1. You are a most powerful case study for the life-changing benefits of exercise, DRG! And I love hearing about your travels and adventures and the way you incorporate activity into your sightseeing. There is no f--cking way I'd be cycling up a mountain pass on my vacation, but I'm sure glad you get to do it since you thrive on that sort of challenge.

      And thanks so much for your awesome and thoughtful comment!

  3. I know far too many people training for events like half marathons who still battle their weight to be surprised by things like this. But I originally lost my weight back in the dark ages (ie the 90s when the internet wasn't a constant presence in our lives, giving us all sorts of new and confusing diet and exercise information) and I felt it was a vital component. I did it because I felt I must, and suffered my way through it.

    Now I do enjoy exercise, and have seen so many other benefits beyond weight loss/maintenance that it's still worth it to me. And that's usually what I try and focus on when we're discussing activity in the groups that I lead. Not JUST for calorie burn!

    Anyway, right now I'm trying to stay cool. We are about to have the warmest week of the summer, and I am OVER IT.

    1. Good point, OTF, that many athletes pumping out tons of miles still struggle with weight. (I think for some folks it's probably diet and others its mainly sucky genetics, but I'm no expert).

      But I love stories like yours of people who went in to the whole exercise thing solely on will and determination and found tons to love about it once it became routine. So many stop before they get to reap the rewards!

  4. Two sayings that I believe are true: Abs are made in the kitchen AND you can't out-train a bad diet.

    'Nuff said.

    1. Thanks Unknown, always a good reminder! Though for best results healthwise, diet + activity seems to me the magic formula.

    2. lately there seems to be SO MUCH DEBATE about the abs thing.
      here? they are STILL MADE IN THAT DAMN KITCHEN :-)

  5. I would agree that it is mostly diet but, when you find exercise that you like it can transform many parts of your life including diet. I found swimming help me with my pain problem and also quieted my mind. In the past I quieted my mind by eating myself into a food induced coma. The pain had me doing a little pity party all the time and I had a sense I was always owed a food treat to compensate for the suffering.
    I still don't have all the answers but I am feeling better than I have in many years and the doctor is happy.

    1. I LOVE this Cindy! It still sucks that you have to deal with chronic pain, but the fact that you've discovered a whole new healthy focus that helps you deal with it and empowers you to resist the call of tasty evil treats... very inspiring.

  6. I just had to explain this to a new member of my class. We teach that weight loss is 80-90% the food you eat and 10-20% the exercise you do. One of the students asked if that meant he could just eat less and forget about the exercise?

    My answer was that yes, he possibly could. I went on to explain that it isn't so much exercising to lose weight as it is exercising to be healthier, overall. That the secret or trick is a combination of both. I said if you can only change ONE thing, then yes, work on the food first. But DO add exercise later, even if only a little bit.

    I look at it like this, if you exercise you develop strength and stamina. That leads to being more active overall. THAT leads to a better metabolism that will burn calories more efficiently which will then enhance your body's ability to lose more weight.

    I believe it is true, that you cannot exercise away what you eat. You have to cut the calories. But I also believe that some exercise is needed for overall wellbeing that leads to overall, a healthier weight.

    Hope that all makes sense!!!

    1. Totally makes sense Sherri! I do wish people would get the message that there's more to health than weight loss, because even if exercise doesn't contribute as much as we may have thought it did to dropping pounds, it still beats almost any prescription med out there for dealing with most illnesses and diseases, both physical and mental.

  7. I realized early on that exercise wasn't a big help for me to lose weight. But movement, especially as I got the pounds off, felt empowering, and I'm sure the endorphins that came along with the exercise helped me feel good, which helped me to stick with the diet.

    Mostly now I just run, because that's what I like to do. I'm too stubborn to exercise just for the sake of exercising.

    Life has been pretty much the same ol' same ol' around here, except for this morning when I sat in on a murder trial. Now THAT was interesting.

  8. Let's not forget muscle burns more than fat and a pound of muscle takes up less space than a pound of fat. And muscle weighs more than fat. Therefore: exercise may not be the magic bullet of weight loss, but it sure can't hurt.

    I've always thought being fit was better than being thin. I'd rather be a fit 160 than a skinny but weak 145 huffing my way up the stairs. But then I've always loved to "play" - be it hiking, biking, organized sports, or just running around with my kids.

    (Let's throw age into the equation...seems after 40 my diet has become much more crucial to the number on the scale than how often I exercise! Major bummer dude.)

    1. I forgot about that, but you are so right with the muscle vs fat thing...which is why, when I was at my smallest, I still weighed a lot, but it was muscle. Hmmm. Maybe I should start doing more than running again.

  9. Exercise is good for you, but for other reasons. It helps you enjoy yourself once you've lost the weight, too! Losing it all and being so out of shape you don't get to do anything would be awful.

    1. I agree messymimi, that would really be depressing!

  10. Best way to celebrate the end of summer--walk thru your local farmer's market and pick up some full of taste heirloom tomatoes, concord grapes and other end of season harvest.

    Our bodies were meant to move to keep functioning. A day without movement is like a day without sunshine....

    1. Agreed, anonymous! Fresh air, fresh food and activity are something to cherish!

  11. I can't imagine not wanting to exercise, no more than I can imagine not wanting to eat. I don't have to imagine not feeling like exercising though. What have I been doing this summer? Hobbling around in pain, that's what. My work day involves much walking, and when I get home, I just want my foot up on the couch, not taking me out for walks. My other foot resents this. Tomorrow! At last! I get to see an orthopedist and find out whether my family doctor is right that I have Morton's neuroma, and if I do, whether the treatment is something I can afford before I'm eligible for Medicare in three years. (If he wants to do an MRI it will just have to wait until then.) I haven't taken a walk for pleasure in many months. I am really frustrated (and have to keep telling myself I'm not going to get instantly cured tomorrow.)

    Here's my favorite weight-loss anecdote: Back in the early sixties, a friend of my mother's had slowly gained a lot of weight while having four children. She was very short, under five feet, so a weight gain that wouldn't be all that noticeable on a tall person was dramatic on her. She also had a family history of heart disease, and her doctor was anxious for her to lose weight. She had tried several diets suggested and supervised by her doctor, over several years, to no effect. Her doctor finally said "Let's try something else. I want you to walk four miles a day, every single day. You can eat whatever you want." He had her build up fairly gradually, but the weight started to come off. In less than a year, she was back to her pre-childbirth weight, and when she spoke to my mother in the grocery, my mother, who hadn't seen her for months, although they talked on the phone,didn't recognize her. So it's very individual.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. So sorry to hear about your foot Mary Anne, that must be so frustrating! Hope its fixed soon. And I LOVE that story about your mother's friend; really goes to show you how there is no one solution that's best for everyone.

  12. So, your post is 100% accurate. In January, 2014 I started to try to lose weight. Being a "lifetime member of Weight Watchers" I hated counting points. I mean HATED it. I told EVERYONE, "I'm a life time member of Weight Watchers. I know how to eat. I'm just NOT going to count points." Ok, so I joined the gym, got a trainer and continued to eat whatever I wanted. In 7 months, I lost about 12 lbs. and was a strong fat woman. Got a new trainer in November and he said, "If you want to lose weight, you have to watch your nutrition." I told him, "I'm a lifetime member of WW..." He said, "If you don't log your food, I can't help you." So I did what he asked me to do. I watch calories and macronutrients (flexible dieting). I've lost all the weight I intended (and then some) and my body fat has diminished to 21% because of nutrition AND exercise. Gotta do both. But it's all about nutrition and no one should be surprised by that. Good post.

    1. Great story Tracey, and I'm with you: food tracking is a HUGE pain in the ass, but way more effective than winging it when trying to lose weight. Glad you found what worked for you!--And kinda funny that it took a bossy trainer to help you find it. A lot of people would have just switched trainers and kept doing what they were most comfortable with.

  13. I am one of those who believe that it takes both mindfulness in the kitchen AND mindfulness in the gym/park/trail/pool to make a long-term and maintainable reduction in one's weight. When I made the first steps to drop my excess 60 lbs. I chose 2 things to change in my diet (no cream in my coffee and no french fries except on vacation) and I started walking 3 mornings a week. It took me almost 2 years and more diet and exercise tweaking to finally get down to a healthy weight. I honestly believe that I could have done it with diet alone, but would I have great blood pressure and a super-low resting heart rate right now? Probably not. Perhaps I could have done it with exercise alone as well, but I would have had to practically live at the gym. Doing both worked for me and there is no way I would give up daily exercise unless I was no longer physically able. The mental/emotional benefits that go with each of them are pretty powerful tools in my sanity arsenal as well!

    Love the topic and love hearing other people's different experiences - thanks Crabby :-)

  14. Very nice review of the benefits of exercise!

    I like to focus on exercise keeping me from gaining weight rather than worry about it not leading to weight loss.

  15. This article is so great! I've enjoyed every word of it!

  16. This is great ! Very nice review of the benefits of both. I think both go hand and in hand and that no one thing is greater than the other

  17. Very good article! i think exercising and losing weight works together.they are benefiting each other!

  18. The bike riders NEED 8000 calories so they will have the energy to finish that grueling race. BUT if they ate that much daily, they would weigh a ton.
    Exercise, like we do at the gym, burns off 9 calories per minute. So in 400 minutes of exercise you can burn off a pound....that is over 6 hours at the gym. We go home after an hour, tired, sweaty and hungry and have a weight loss. We get discouraged after a few weeks of this and quit the gym.
    Exercise IS important for our health but not for weight loss. If you want to raise your metabolism, weight train. Lift heavy and build lots of muscle.
    If you want to lose weight, fast, without hunger and without losing your health and without getting discouraged, go it our way. Then when you are down to your ideal weight, start exercising to stay healthy.

  19. This one is a good read. Back during my teenage years, I hate sweating and I just want to stay inside my room for the whole day and night! But now, I had a huge difference in my lifestyle. Exercising is now part of my life, even though I'm not doing it for weight loss.


  20. Crabby,

    Whether exercise promotes significant weight loss depends on the kind of exercise.

    As pointed out by Brad Lemley, the science shows that high-intensity interval training (HITT) is the best by far for burning fat.

    A University of Virginia study (Effect of exercise training intensity on abdominal visceral fat and body composition.” National Institute of Health. Web.) tested volunteers in three groups:

    One sat on its collective duff the entire time. The second long, slow aerobic exercise. And the third performed more intense exercise with a shorter duration; it was the only group that managed to burn away significant amounts of belly fat.

    Another interesting result: The metabolic rate of the low-intensity exercisers actually went down during the study. The more intense exercisers achieved faster metabolisms.

    But as one researcher put it, you must commit to spending most of that brief high-exertion interval at an “8 or above” on a 1–10 intensity scale. (On the other hand, you’ll need to spend much less time exercising.)

    This sort of exercise is known as high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. It has long been known to serious athletes but is now finally entering the mainstream.

    The same research group that did the study above found in another that HIIT burned fat more efficiently than did typical aerobics. They tracked two groups. One performed 20 weeks of conventional aerobics, and the other did 15 weeks of HIIT.

    The first group burned more calories per workout session, but the second group incinerated an astounding 900% more fat.
    So why isn’t this form of fitness more popular?

    Other than the requisite ass-busting (this really does need to be emphasized), many people are turned off because they’ve been lulled into chasing something called the “fat-burning zone” when they exercise.

    Perhaps you’ve seen this seductive term on a poster near the treadmills at the gym. The poster may also feature a fancy-colored graph marking off certain percentages of maximum heart rate. The idea is simple, but, rather misleading: “Keep your heart rate, and intensity, within 55–65% of maximum and you’ll burn fat at maximum efficiency during your workout.”

    Actually, it’s higher-intensity workouts that boost the release of human growth hormone (HGH), which acts like a youth serum in your body, firming muscles, tightening skin, increasing energy, improving sleep . . . and carving away fat. Low-intensity exercise causes little or no release of HGH.

    This was confirmed by Dr. Christopher Scott, at the University of Southern Maine “Afterburn Effect: Burn 500+ Calories from 10 Minutes of Exercise?” Built Lean. Web.). He examined the differences between steady cycling and 15-minute sprints and found the sprinters burned 95% of their calories after the exercise was over. Bottom line: Slashing the time and pumping up the intensity can give you dramatically better exercise results.

    You can access Lemley’s book, "Freedom from Fat," in the DropBox on my website,

    Robert K. Walker


Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)