Exercise doesn't bring about weight loss

It’s a strange day when I agree with a Tech Central Station article. But this article on exercise and weight loss (via Big Fat Blog) is interesting.

…Few of us realize that the most significant body of research shows exercise doesn’t appreciably change body weights at all.

Recognizing that many of the studies finding beneficial weight loss due to exercise were not well controlled, researchers at the University of Texas conducted the Heritage Family Study. Led by Jack H. Wilmore, Ph.D., they put over 500 men and women on a 20-week endurance training program. While concluding that exercise can induce favorable changes, the study admitted they’re of “limited biological significance.” Yet the researchers speculated that increasing the intensity and duration of exercise would “likely have a major effect on body-composition and fat distribution.” (As we’ll see, that hopeful prediction didn’t prove out.)

Just how “limited” were the weight loss benefits of exercise? Men lost 0.4 kg and women a mere 0.1 kg! Other research, such as the meta-analysis done by researchers at the University of Vermont, has consistently found women lose less fat and weight than men, an understandably important biological attribute for preserving fertility and the survival of the species. “In a recent study conducted in our laboratory,” wrote Wilmore, “previously sedentary, moderately overweight women placed on an intense, 6-month, resistance-training program actually gained total mass and fat mass, even though they were instructed to maintain the same diet and activity pattern that they had before starting the study.”

The article goes on to describe several more studies which found the same result: for many people, exercise won’t lead to significant weight loss.

What’s horrible about this is that, by presenting exercise for fat people as primarily about weight loss, mainstream media and medicine may actually be increasing deaths among fat people. Because exercise for fat people is presented as a weight loss issue, those fat people who try exercise and find that they remain fat may not see the point of continuing. After all, the exercise program “failed.”

If the major media and the medical establishment preached that exercise – not weight loss – was the key to good health, then many people (especially fat people) might exercise more, and therefore lead longer, healthier lives.

But mainstream opinion-makers won’t do that. Sure, it might save some lives, but there are more imporant issues at stake here. Talking about exercise and health for fat people, without making losing weight the measure of success, implies that we can be fat and in good health. And that view is heretical in our fat-phobic society.

Arguably, it’s not only heretical – it’s immoral. For many people, being fat isn’t just a physical trait; it’s a moral flaw. And suggesting that people should be fat and fit is suggesting that immorality should go unpunished. To the most fat-phobic people, that suggestion doesn’t just sound wrong; it sounds unjust.

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25 Responses to Exercise doesn't bring about weight loss

  1. 1
    Natalie Bennett says:

    I’d agree with this conclusion from personal experience IF you are just talking weight loss.

    Over a period of about two years, however, I’ve started cycling first 20 minutes each way then 40 minutes each way to work. It hasn’t significantly changed my weight, but I have dropped two sizes in clothes and my masseur said I was “resculpting” – a nice word I think – my body – replacing fat with muscle. And I feel generally much healthier.

    I don’t own scales and don’t think that way, but I can see how the results might seem disappointing if that was what you were focused on.

  2. 2
    pseu (deja pseu) says:

    Sandy Swarzc’s articles are just about the only thing at Tech Central Station I can stomach. She did a great series a while back on the myths surrounding obesity which were very thoughtful and well researched.

    And I agree wholeheartedly with Amp that as long as weight loss is held up as the primary measure of success with exercise or any healthy lifestyle change, that people won’t tend to stick with it.

    But I think that what’s really happening culturally is that just as the Republicans have harnessed moral outrage of the religious right to achieve their end of sweeping economic changes (further enriching the rich), so the pharmaceutical and weight loss industries have fed the flames of moral outrage against those indulgent fat people in order to make money off their desparation. Call me cynical, but I’ve come to believe that what drives most moral cultural imperatives is that someone is going to get richer as a result.

  3. 3
    pseu (deja pseu) says:

    Should have put quotes around “those indulgent fat people”. I personally don’t believe fat people are any more indulgent than any other group of people; in fact I tend to get very impatient with those who make this assumption. :)

  4. 4
    Jordan Barab says:

    The referenced article states that

    “previously sedentary, moderately overweight women placed on an intense, 6-month, resistance-training program actually gained total mass and fat mass, even though they were instructed to maintain the same diet and activity pattern that they had before starting the study.”

    I’m wondering whether they actually confirmed that the subjects maintained the same died and activity pattern. Reported food consumption is not always the same as actual food consumption.

  5. 5
    mousehounde says:

    I’m wondering whether they actually confirmed that the subjects maintained the same died and activity pattern. Reported food consumption is not always the same as actual food consumption.

    It always seems curious to me that the first thing people think of when they see a report or study of this nature is the “fat” people are lying. Sneaking Twinkies and Big Macs while no one is looking and reporting it as a salad. Why on earth would they participate in the study, then lie about their food consumption and activities? What is the reasoning? Fat people are lazy and immoral, therefore you have to expect they would lie?

  6. 6
    Amanda says:

    I exercise fairly regularly, and I’ve noticed that at times I’ve quit, I tend to gain about 10 pounds. When I keep up with it, I maintain my weight, but no, I wouldn’t say that it’s some kind of dramatic weight loss. It seems to be common sense to me that if thin people have a minimum weight they can’t get below, so would fat people.

  7. 7
    acm says:

    mousehounde,
    You wouldn’t have to posit “naughty” eating increases like sneaking twinkies. it’s just that most people don’t really judge their calorie intake well, so having a larger or smaller serving of something would go under the radar, as would switching the types of foods eaten. Certainly when I am exercising regularly I eat a more substantial diet (while still healthy and balanced) and have to make a conscious effort to cut out foods when I’m in a period of no exercise. Folks not used to working out could easily ramp up their portion sizes without ever noticing that they were doing so. Only people “on diets” use scales.

    But of course I agree with previous comments that weight is a lousy marker of anything. Muscle weighs more than fat, so there could be a lot of positive changes that you’d never see on the scale (and some of which are about cardiopulmonary health, e.g.). Hard to shift the focus though!

  8. 8
    Barbara says:

    I have come to the conclusion that almost everything being written on obesity, weight loss, and exercise is misleading, including this article.

    There seem to be two phenomena at work: On average, most people (even thin people) weigh a bit more, but the real change is in the number of people who are obese or morbidly obese — that is, who weigh a lot more than they likely would have in a previous generation. I’m not being judgmental, but obviously, something besides (or more likely, in addition to) genetic predisposition is happening. Decreased overall activity (not just concentrated bursts of exercise) combined with dietary trends is causing all of us to gain some weight and some of us to gain a lot of weight.

    The role of exercise in reversing the weight gain is underwhelming — but the role of activity in maintaining a lower body weight is fairly compelling. There are studies that show, for instance, that those in high activity professions (waitress) are on average thinner than those who are basically sedentary, even when the sedentary person goes out of his or her way to exercise. Overall level of activity does count, but lots of other forces are at work as well, such as, for instance, compensating for additional activity by eating more food (a natural, not blameworthy, response).

    So any person who is out of shape can benefit from an exercise regimen, and over time, with some dietary changes many people will experience some weight loss, even if not a lot.

  9. 9
    Samantha says:

    My experience is similar to Natalie’s.

    I walked miles every day living in a big city and didn’t notice significant weight loss, but moving to a place where I bike commute to work 25 minutes and back each day has had a dramatic effect on my body and health. My diet has changed a bit (no longer eat fish) but not much.

    I’m not sure exactly what a 20-week endurance training program entails, but my experience got me thinking weight loss through exercise has a lot to do with raising the body’s heartrate for a time. I don’t think if I walked the 3 miles to work and back everyday that I would have seen the 15 lb, 2 dress size difference.

  10. 10
    zuzu says:

    I’m wondering about the study as well. I clicked through to the study site, and it looks like the participants exercised three times a week for 20 weeks, beginning at 30 minutes and ending up with 50 minutes. That’s not a whole lot, really just the minimum for cardiovascular health.

    The other study cited was a resistance-training program; IOW, weight training. While increased muscle mass is helpful, it doesn’t burn calories at the same rate that cardio does.

    That said, I’m in total agreement with those who want to see the focus of exercise move away from weight loss to increased health in general. Undoubtedly, the people in those studies improved their health even if they didn’t lose much weight. What happened to them after the study? Were they encouraged to keep up with their routines?

  11. 11
    Paul says:

    Part of the answer lies in what kind of exercise the participants were doing. Just aerobic exercise isn’t going to make that big of a difference, because it is only burning calories. While that helps a little bit, the real difference would come from some sort of weight-training, as building up muscle is one of the best ways to increase your metabolism.

    And no exercise program is going to do you a whole lot of good if you don’t pair it with healthy eating patterns.

    Studies like these always seem too narrow to me, as they’re trying to find that one magic bullet that will be easy to market and solve everyone’s problems. The body is a complex system, and only making one change in your exercise patterns isn’t going to do all that much for your overall health. You need to look at these things wholistically.

  12. 12
    Tor says:

    Just some anectodal evidence on my part. Having taken up running two years ago, and having finished the NYC marathon in November, I’ve lost approx. 20 lbs. So I guess I am one of those people who lose weight from exercise.

    I can tell you though, if my diet had stayed the same, but I had added significant exercise to my life, and still I gained both weight and increased the amount of fat, I would not only have been surprised, but I would have contacted a physicist. I don’t understand how you could gain both weight and fat while increasing exercise and keeping input (food) the same. Something screwy about that research…

  13. 13
    Ampersand says:

    Actually, Tor, it doesn’t require a change in physics at all; all it requires is for people’s bodies to start turning more of food into mass (both muscle and fat), and less into excrement.

    It’s incredibly simplistic to think that the only effect of diet or exercise is to become thinner or thicker. Our bodies are active systems; how bodies process food changes in response to what we eat and what we do. It’s not just how much we eat, and how much we exercise, but also how we metabolize. (sp?)

  14. 14
    Barbara says:

    Right, but the other dynamic is that muscle weighs more than fat, and metabolizes more calories. So even if you don’t “lose weight” by doing exercise you often lose girth. Sometimes, when you eat less your body goes into starvation mode, and your metabolism slows down. Which is all by way of saying that in order for “true” weight loss to occur, and by that I mean weight loss that is accompanied by better health and fitness, you have to permanently change habits and permanently raise your level of activity. The concept of “a diet” is false, because a temporary change in eating or excercise habits rarely brings about permanent change. I stress that I am not trying to moralize, but while I hate the diet industry with a passion, I also think that it’s wrong to speak as if you have no control over your weight through changing diet and raising your activity level. Maybe at some point or for some people that’s true, but I know too many people who’ve made permanent changes. But it’s extraordinarily difficult and no one should sit around moralizing about it.

  15. 15
    pseu says:

    Barbara,

    I think for many of us, it’s not that we have *no* control over our weight, but *limited* control over our weight even when we incorporate exercise and healthier dietary changes. People who have been fat since childhood (especially if they were put on diets early in life) have little to no chance of becoming “lean”. They might lose 5% of their body weight, firm up a bit, and be in much better shape from a cardiovascular sense, but they’re never going to look like marathon runners or gymnasts, just as someone who’s been a “beanpole” all their life is unlikely to become Mr. Universe (without the help of steroids).

  16. 16
    PinkDreamPoppies says:

    There are studies that show, for instance, that those in high activity professions (waitress) are on average thinner than those who are basically sedentary, even when the sedentary person goes out of his or her way to exercise.

    Veering away from the rest of the discussion, I’d like to take a moment to point out that this particular anecdote is bad science. It is likely, yes, that waitresses are thinner than, say, data entry clerks, but to suggest that this correlates in any way with activity and its relationship to weight/shape over-simplifies the situation.

    Waitresses may be thinner, but let’s not forget that waitresses and waiters are generally hired to present a pleasant and attractive face to customers; data entry clerks, meanwhile, are often hired for positions that require little customer contact. Also, prospective employers may more leanient in their standards for perceived fitness in their employees if the position in question requires more sedentary work such as data entry. Both of these things—and more—create a bias toward certain body types in certain professions; to conclude that waitresses are thinner because they move around more neglects the likelihood that the waitresses were hired in part because of their thinness.

  17. 17
    Robert says:

    Exercise doesn’t help you lose much weight.

    It does help you build a healthier metabolism, feel better, have a higher energy level, and look fit.

    The last time I got serious exercise was working as a bike messenger many moons ago. I didn’t lose any weight – but my legs went from being plump and squishy to being hard-muscled steely springs. It was very noticeable.

  18. 18
    Barbara says:

    Actually, this is in answer to pseu — in many cases, the lack of control is socio-economic, which is why body weight and health is definitively not a moral issue, at least not for the reasons that Amp alluded to. If, for instance, your mother doesn’t let you play outside because she’s deathly afraid of gang activity, or if she can’t obtain fruits and vegetables because she has no access to a super market, and you therefore are more likely to become heavy for a variety of reasons, that’s a moral issue but not because you can’t make yourself lose weight. And if you look at the distribution of excess weight, poor fitness and their attendant problems, you find that the poor and minorities are among the most afflicted. Making “fat” a moral issue is downright sadistic and, let’s face it, classist in the extreme, when you consider this aspect of the overall equation.

    To whoever said that waitresses are selected for their looks, I don’t know about that, but that was just one example of a more active type of job. If activity had nothing to do with weight and weight were purely a matter of genetics, then our immediate ancestors would have weighed as much as we do, but they didn’t, even though studies suggest that they ate more calories than we do.

    And I really didn’t mean to moralize, I just think that there are things you can do to improve your fitness, but there are so many barriers that they are not always available. Breaking those barriers is a worthy goal, but if you start with the assumption that they don’t matter anyway, then why should anyone bother?

  19. 19
    This is stupid says:

    Calorie balance is 100% correlated to weight loss or gain.
    http://health.howstuffworks.com/calorie.htm

    How to lose weight for free:
    1. Read how calories work above.
    2. Figure out how many cals a day it takes to maintain your current weight.
    3. Reduce said amount by a comfortable amount, say, 100 calories a day. So if it takes 2200 cals a day to maintain your current weight, drop it down to eating 2100 calories a day. You will notice an *immediate* difference. When you start to not lose weight anymore, drop it by 75 calories. The key is not to drop it drastically, or your body will be starving for calories, since it’s mass maintenance is expecting more.
    4. Use some will power. Obsess about how much food contains how many calories.

    I’ve lost 25 pounds in 2004 after I read that guide (245 down to 220,)

    If you add in exercise it’ll only help things.

  20. 20
    Mark says:

    First, the relevant research regime in the entry mentioned instructed caloric intake (more or less) but did not describe how caloric intake was to be regulated (if it was regulated at all). Making this point does not imply that we all naturally tend to think “fat” people ( I hate that term) sneak about eating high calorie foods in shame. Additionally, subject dishonesty is a persistent problem in any research method that relies in any way on the “honor system.” Having said this, caloric intake is an especially troublesome thing to monitor. For example: A low fat variety of Jiffy peanut butter contains the same amount of fat as regular Jiffy. However Jiffy is able to make the claim that one variation of its recipe is “low fat” because the “low fat” variant contains more calories per serving than regular Jiffy. So, vis a vis CALORIC intake, low fat Jiffy is actually lower in fat content. However, something about this smacks of insincerety.

    Taking that example it is easy to see how the food industry wishes to capitalize on the anti-fat craze whilst providing us product chock-full of all those things we wish to avoid. The food business will do this in any way they can…….even if it tries to decieve us regarding caloric intake. Certain products are packaged such that we feel as if we must eat all of the product contained, yet when reading the nutritional information we are told to only eat half or a third of the product. How many of us want to eat half a cookie or half a piece of cake? How satisfying is that in the long run?

    Second: Exercise DOES lead to fat loss. Weight loss is another matter as muscle weighs more than fat. Some individuals will find after an appropriate regimine they will weigh more than they did beforehand. For solid, long-term data on this subject, go to weight watchers. The diet plan has been around a long time and is dutifully recorded well enough to stand up to scrutiny.

    I have said it before and I will say it again. We are FATTER THAN EVER. A comment posted previously mentioned how people engage in less physical activity than they used to. When I was a child, I loved junk food. I ate it to no end. But in my free time I was outside playing games that required me to sweat. Today my youngest brother loves junk food as much as I, but his free time is spent pressing buttons in front of a television. When asked if he would like to go outdoors and play something that requires him to run, imagine, and / or sweat he declines with a sigh.

    Another comment spoke of the American mentality that assumes physical labor is the result of external force rather than internal will. In other words, we work because we HAVE to, not because we want to. This seems to be the fashion but Im yet to be convinced it is entirely the case. However, luxury has always been defined by us in terms of physical labor. “Blue collar” is synonomous with “low class” and “undeveloped.” This is an unfortunate mentality.

    Finally, gym memberships are not a status symbol. Gyms are much like universities. You get what you put into them. The only difference between something expensive and something cheap is the bottom 10%. The focused, driven, and intent among us make due with what we can get. Hell, almost everyone can afford to work out at the local YWCA / YMCA.

  21. 21
    pseu says:

    Actually, this is in answer to pseu — in many cases, the lack of control is socio-economic, which is why body weight and health is definitively not a moral issue, at least not for the reasons that Amp alluded to. If, for instance, your mother doesn’t let you play outside because she’s deathly afraid of gang activity, or if she can’t obtain fruits and vegetables because she has no access to a super market, and you therefore are more likely to become heavy for a variety of reasons, that’s a moral issue but not because you can’t make yourself lose weight. And if you look at the distribution of excess weight, poor fitness and their attendant problems, you find that the poor and minorities are among the most afflicted. Making “fat” a moral issue is downright sadistic and, let’s face it, classist in the extreme, when you consider this aspect of the overall equation.

    Agree with you 100% here.

  22. 22
    Roberta Robinson says:

    I personally have always been a long distance walker, hiker on trails etc, and always was overfat, tho I never gained this fat except when I tried to lose it by eating less than needed to reach sataity or trying to eat only so called “good” foods. and trying through sheer willpower avoid all the bad foods like ice cream or sugary cereals or butter or whatever is considered fattening. and eating only low fat and low caloire foods. boy was that a mistake. then I did weight watchers and that was even a bigger mistake considering how it caused me to stop jogging after spending 10 years of jogging.

    but even after I gave up trying to lose weight and only exercising because i basically enjoy hiking trials and walking and such it still bothered me that I could not get rid of my extra poundage of fat. I realized from this experience that I was a failure at the weight loss game, no matter what I did everyone I knew who were thin could eat whatever they wanted and stayed thin especially my family members, and I thought that being fat is just something I will have to live with. now I know that I am not a failure but the cure was the failure. all this time the cure for over fatness was not forcing the body to burn off more than you take in or taking in less than the body burns off but rather of giving the body what it needs and letting it decide when to burn it off.

    once I realized how the famine feast cycle gets one fat and keeps you there as long as you keep the cycle going, even if you are unaware of it, then getting off the cycle for good will cure the overeating that leads to more fat syndrome. and it will even reverse it. Now I exercise because I feel good and want to and have an itching too not because I have to to lose weight or because I make myself, but rather it is as my body is now saying (since this fat is now a liability because I no longer undereat or force it to get by on less food from the outside I want you to burn it off!) and by the way since I no longer want to store fat anymore but rather start to get rid of it I am sending along chemicals that will make you nauseaus if you even look at ice cream or other high fat junky foods. and if you look at a chocolate bar I will send more chemicals to make you feel like you will throw up, and I will send chemcials now to make you crave salads, lean meats leaner dairy, whole grains and beans and rices etc that will give me plenty of carbs to help me burn up the fat and plenty of protein to build muscles that will help speed fat loss, since I don’t want this fat to kill you.

    anyway because I feel better have more energy (because I eat enough and do not try to force my body to tap reserves by undereating) I now took up jogging with my walking, granted I have not made it to the point of jogging nonstop for a mile, but I am still at it, even if it means my progress for jogging time will be slow, due to be so overweight, even tho before I started to increase exercise I lost 20 pounds and several dress sizes, I still have a long way to go. am I jogging to lose weight? well if you understand what I learned about physiology of the body and the famine feast cycle you would realize that my exericising can actually decrease my fat loss, slow it down.

    how can exercise increase fat stores along with muscles? well exercise is an energy expander and the body of that one always wants to be prepared incase (due to higher metabolism and muscles) that you could be stranded without food, how long will a lean very low fat body live without something to fall back on? and if you have endured famines in the past (knowingly or not) you have already trained your body to expect famines, and this training only increases the body’s desire for fat stores. but you can train the body not to expect famines but to expect food will always be in abundant supply (in the stomach not on the shelf) and any excess fat would only be a liability then your body can remain lean.

    any how regardless of one’ s goals with regard to weight loss, weight loss is not the sole reason for exercising (one can become a thin sedetary person by recognizing where you are on the famine feast cycle and getting off it for good) but exercise builds strength, is great for depression, gives you something to look forward too, and increases one’s ability to play sports or hike trails longer if one is fitter then if you are not fit it makes you sleep better (usually) it boosts metabolism (provided you are not on the famine feast cycle) it gives you more energy to do chores around the house (speaking of myself) even if you are still overweight it makes it easier to lug that weight around.

    and it changes the fat/muscle ration, strengthens the heart, it even helps you have more energy and still recover when you are sick. fit people can still enjoy some of the things they like when they have a cold (because their resting heart rate is lower, ) then for someone whos’ resting heart rate is higher in a unfit person. it controls inuslin levels, it improves insulin sensitivity in those whose bodies are insulin resistant (and if you are on the famine feast cycle then you are probably insulin resistant)

    I am finding that my walk/jogging, both outside and on my treadmill, plus a little weight lifing and walking besides the walk/jogging routine has enough physical and mental benefits that even if I don’t lose weight per say I am still going to do it as long as I am able, but it would be a bonus if it helped my fat loss along, but I am not going to rely on it for that.

    RR

  23. 23
    mythago says:

    Geez, Mark, how old are you? Couch potato children were not new when *I* was a kid, and I’m bloody well middle-aged.

  24. 24
    Crys T says:

    “Hell, almost everyone can afford to work out at the local YWCA / YMCA. ”

    Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG…..I cannot stress how absolutely, postively WRONG that assertion is. Maybe almost everyone who is single AND lucky enough to only have to work one job that pays well over minimum wage can afford the Y, but, as I hope does not need to be pointed out, many, many people are just not in that situation.

    For most people, especially those with children, it’s impossible-to-nearly impossible to simply cover the bills each month and get the kids off to school and fed…not to mention clothed. There simply isn’t much or anything left over for things like paying gym fees. The only reason I can currently afford to go to a gym myself is because, after my partner and I sold our flat, I was able to pay the massive joining fee which then allowed me to make the small monthly charges. But having that lump sum to spend all at one time would have been literally impossible for me at any other time. BUT, you don’t get the chance to pay the more affordable monthly fee if you don’t drop the huge wad in the beginning. It’s a virtual guarantee that only the relatively privileged ever have access to these places.

    And, oh yes: you also usually need to be able to afford a car, because these gyms are often located away from city centres (the more affordable ones are, anyway), so if you’re like me and rely on public transport, you have to factor that cost into going as well.

    And if you join a gym that has some sort of public funding and therefore a much smaller joining fee, you not only have to cough up what amounts to about a weeks’ worth of grocery money in one go, you also have to pay a charge every time you use the facilities. Those charges vary depending on whether you are doing a class or working out on your own, but, while seeming small enough on their own, they add up, making it impossible for most people to afford going more than about once a week. And I’m talking about single people there: if you had to pay for the kids too, forget it.

    MAYBE if you are lucky enough to live in a place where a) there are ample public parks and/or trails for hiking & climbing, and/or public beaches for swimming (where the water is actually clean enough to permit your doing so) AND b) where the weather permits a lot of outdoor activity AND c) you are lucky enough to work hours that allow you the time for adequate leisure, then, sure, virtually free exercise is yours. If, like a lot if not most of us, those above conditions don’t ALL apply, you better have a lot of money.

  25. 25
    nell apego says:

    base on my experience, EXERCISE DOES’NT HELP ME TO LOSE WEIGHT AT ALL EVEN YOU REDUCE YOUR EATING. I’VE ALSO TRIED TO EAT FRESH FRUITS INSTEAD OF CHOCOLATE AS DESSERTS but still I’m overweight. I think exercise only helps you to protect yourself from heart diseases, makes you active but not to lose weight