The Exercise Weight Loss Dilemma

Eat less, move more has been the weight loss mantra for decades. But does exercise really help us lose weight or can it make us want to eat more?

Physical activity consumes kilojoules. We’ve been told for years that if we burn those kilojoules without replacing them in the form of food, then we’ll rid ourselves of excess fat and shrink our waistlines.

It sounds good in theory. Except that past studies have shown it doesn’t always work to plan. Most men and women who begin new exercise routines drop just 30 to 40 percent of the weight they would have expected, given how many additional kilojoules they are burning through exercise.

Why would this be the case? Some scientists think many of us compensate for the kilojoules lost by eating more, moving less, or both.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tracked a large group of previously inactive people who had started exercise programs. Participants in both the shorter-and-longer-workout groups lost less weight than would have been expected. The reason? They were eating more food as compensation – but not a lot. However, just an additional 90 to 120 calories (380 to 500 kilojoules) each day was enough to undercut weight loss.

So if you’re wanting to lose weight, say the researchers, then along with becoming more active, make sure you don’t eat more to compensate.

Being active = better food choices

But there’s more to it than that, argue the authors of a recent large review study. The University of Leeds study, published in Current Obesity Reports, found that taking up exercise can affect your food choices – in positive ways.

The researchers discovered that regular exercise helped control appetite and was associated with an increased liking or healthier low-fat/low-energy foods, and a decreased desire for unhealthy high-fat or high-energy foods. Their conclusion? Eating more does not necessarily counteract the benefit of increasing physical activity, because you’re likely to seek out healthier foods.

How exercise affects your health

Looking at exercise through the narrow lens of weight loss is problematic, say many experts. That’s because being regularly active brings with it a host of health benefits, whether or not you lose weight. Exercise will:

  •             reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers
  •            lower your blood pressure and cholesterol
  •            strengthen your bones, muscles and joints, and reduce your risks of falls
  •            make you feel better – by giving you more energy, lifting your mood, and helping you sleep more soundly.

Whether or not exercise sheds kilos as quickly as we’d like, what we do know is this: exercise helps minimise weight gain as we age and will help you maintain weight loss if you do lose weight.