It’s no surprise that exercise is one of the first things we turn to when we decide it’s time to lose weight.
We readily sign up for that gym membership and commit to extra walks with the dog, thinking that if we get enough exercise, the number on the scale will drop.
It’s also probably not surprising that many of us get frustrated when we follow this routine for months and don’t see any change on the scales. This is why I get asked so often: Does exercise help you lose weight, or is it just diet?
Like all things related to weight loss, the short answer is: It’s complicated.
What does the research say about exercise and weight?
There have been many studies over the past 70 years examining the role exercise plays in weight management. Recent research on this topic has mostly found that exercise alone has little effect on weight loss.
This includes a meta-study examining all relevant studies in the area, which found that those who used exercise alone lost less weight compared to those who exercised and also reduced their energy intake.
A 2018 study found that significant weight loss was unlikely when participants followed minimally regulated guidelines for physical activity. This requires 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. The total volume of exercise needs to be well above the recommended minimum levels in order to achieve significant weight loss without dieting.
Studies show that you need to do about 60 minutes of moderate activity per day to achieve significant weight loss.
But before we cancel our gym membership, we also need to consider the wealth of research that confirms that it’s vital to focus on exercise as part of any weight loss program.
Exercise helps keep the weight off
Aerobic exercise will improve body composition and prevent muscle deterioration. Our metabolic rate—the amount of energy we burn at rest—is determined by how much muscle and fat we have, and muscle is more metabolically active than fat, which means it burns more kilojoules.
Relying on diet alone to lose weight will reduce muscle and body fat, and slow down your metabolism. It is therefore essential to ensure that you incorporate sufficient and appropriate exercise into your weight loss plan to maintain your muscle mass stores.
It’s also important to incorporate resistance training to build strength. This does not mean that you need to be in the gym every day. Just two days a week and in the comfort of your own home is totally fine.
Research confirms that moderate-volume resistance training (three sets of ten repetitions of eight exercises) is just as effective as high-volume resistance training (five sets of ten repetitions of eight exercises) for preserving lean muscle mass when on a diet that includes moderate calorie restriction.
Studies also show that physical activity and exercise have a significant effect in preventing weight regain after weight loss. A long-term study found that those who maintain high levels of exercise (expending more than 10,500 kilojoules or 2,500 calories each week, for example by walking 75 minutes per day) maintained a significantly greater weight loss than participants who exercised less.
Exercising has general health benefits
Before you start seeing the results of exercise on the scales, you will almost certainly experience the many physical and mental health benefits that come with exercise.
Even low levels of exercise reduce your chance of developing diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research shows that exercise is just as important as losing weight for improving health, because most obesity-related risk indicators for diabetes and heart disease can be improved through exercise, Even if you don’t lose weight.
Exercise has many benefits other than weight maintenance. Image credit: Octocorp/Shutterstock.com
A physically active person with obesity can be considered metabolically healthy if he or she maintains good blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin levels. There is good evidence showing that the risk of early death associated with obesity is greatly reduced or eliminated by moderate to high fitness levels.
Besides improving your health, regular exercise has other physical benefits, such as improved strength and mobility. It also reduces stress levels, and even low levels of exercise will result in reduced symptoms of depression, improved mood, and promote better sleep.
This, in turn, will help you better manage your diet, while boosting your mood, helping you to choose healthy foods and prevent impulsive food choices.
The bottom line?
Exercise will help you lose weight and prevent you from gaining weight again – it just won’t help you achieve your weight loss goals on your own.
Exercise is one of the cornerstones of long-term weight management. It plays an essential role in weight loss and maintenance, as does our diet and sleep choices.
To encourage more exercise, eat something you enjoy. Make sure to include variety, because doing the same daily routine is always a surefire way to get bored and give up.
Nick FullerCharles Perkins Center Research Program Chair, University of Sydney
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.