Include Exercise in Your Weight Loss Plans

SBM: include-exercise-in-your-weight-loss-plans

Stephanie A. Hooker, PhD, MPH, HealthPartners Institute; Sara H. Marchese, PhD, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine; and Jennifer Mandelbaum, MPH, University of South Carolina


Every year, nearly half of U.S. adults try to lose weight according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Many of them participate in behavioral weight loss programs, which provide guided changes in eating and exercise habits.

However, research shows that people lose very small amounts of weight through exercise alone, even suggesting that adding exercise alongside changes to eating habits does not significantly improve weight loss. Does this mean we should abandon recommendations to engage in physical activity as part of behavioral weight loss programs?

Current Physical Activity Recommendations

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2nd edition) recommends that adults perform 150 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity (intense enough to increase heart rate) per week. Additionally, adults should do muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days per week. Doing more than that certainly doesn’t hurt. 

While 150 minutes may seem daunting, it’s worth noting that “physical activity” includes all movement during the day, not just focused exercise. A brisk walk can raise someone’s heart rate enough that it would count towards that time. Even movement that doesn’t elevate your heart rate is beneficial.  

These are just general guidelines for all adults. Your weight loss exercise plan may involve more or less time spent exercising. The key is to create the right balance between intense and moderate exercise. The right exercise plan for weight loss balances well-being and happiness with meeting health goals. 

How Physical Activity Affects Weight Loss

Emerging research has questioned whether we should focus on physical activity as part of behavioral weight loss programs. Specifically, research has demonstrated that adding physical activity to programs focused on changing eating habits does not add to the amount of weight lost. 

Why might this be? 

One explanation is that people tend to overestimate how much physical activity they do and then eat more after exercising. This may be through conscious choices to eat (e.g. “It’s OK to eat that dessert because I worked out”) or unconscious eating (e.g. feeling hungrier after engaging in activity). 

Another reason physical activity may not aid in weight loss is that people may reduce lifestyle activity on days they engage in more intense physical activity. This cuts down their overall calorie expenditure for the day, which offsets the impact of exercise. 

Exercising is time consuming and difficult, whereas eating is not. To lose one to two pounds a week, people should strive for a 500-calorie deficit per day. This could be achieved in an hour of vigorous activity every day. Meanwhile, a person can consume 500 calories in just a few minutes. 

Physical activity has numerous benefits but it isn’t enough on its own to make a significant impact on weight loss. Building an effective weight loss exercise plan requires other changes, as well.

Don’t Abandon Physical Activity

Despite the fact physical activity does not seem to directly contribute to weight loss, it is still an important behavior to include in behavioral weight loss programs. Movement plays an important role in our overall health that can help you stick to a weight loss plan. 

Physical activity has many benefits beyond weight loss, including:

  • Improve cardiorespiratory fitness 
  • Maintain muscle mass, especially as they lose weight
  • Expend energy and compensate for a decrease in metabolism as people lose weight
  • Maintain mobility
  • Prevent injury
  • Reduce risk of chronic disease
  • Live longer
  • Improve well-being 
  • Reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Maintain motivation while engaging in a behavioral weight loss program
  • Maintain weight loss 

How to Adjust Your Weight Loss Exercise Plan

Physical activity is a vital part of all efforts to lose weight – it just can’t drive weight loss on its own. In this respect, behavioral weight loss programs should help people set small, achievable goals and gradually increase to the recommended level of at least 150 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity per week. 

Hitting this threshold can have a dramatic effect on health, even if it isn’t visible when you step on the scale. Generally speaking, over-focusing on weigh-ins can be the wrong strategy. The goal is always to feel good in your body and enjoy healthier living. It can be helpful to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely) that are not weight-specific and pick activities that are enjoyable to increase the likelihood that you’ll follow through on your plan. 

The numerous benefits of physical activity can’t be overstated. The immediate improvements in mood, energy, and sense of well-being can make your weight loss plan more successful. But as in most things, there’s no perfect solution. Everyone needs to find their own balance of exercise, dietary changes, and other behaviors to develop healthy habits.

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