fitness · weight loss

The benefits of exercise are many, but long term weight loss isn’t (necessarily) one of them

CW: Discusses weight loss and the desire for it

There are things we want to be true but aren’t. One of those things–for me– is working out causing weight loss.

Outdoor yoga

Why do I even care about weight loss? The reasons are boring and hard. I want to go faster up hills. That’s the physics of it. I want to look like the athletic person I am and have people recognize me as such. That’s the vanity of it. But absolutely the most important reason is knee replacement surgery and increasing the odds of a better recovery. It’s my left knee now, but soon it will be both. Mostly I keep weight loss talk off the blog with the exception of my monthly updates where I talk about it in the context of my knee.

Now, for me, the exercise connection isn’t the usual one. I’m not exercising now to lose weight. Rather movement and physical activity, mostly cycling but also hiking and dog walking and skiing, are big and important sources of pleasure and joy in my life. I need total knee replacement surgery to keep doing those things. I need to lose weight to better my odds of a good surgical outcome. I’m not exercising to lose weight. I’m trying to lose weight to keep physical activity in my life.

I’ve struggled with weight loss my whole life and I am bored with the issue. So bored. I’ve written so very much about the impossibility of weight loss. See here and here. I’ve written lots about weight loss myths, like the idea that everyone likes that slow steady weight loss is better than speedy. It’s not. Neither has good long term success but the former sounds better.

That said my eyes still light up when I see weight loss linked to exercise in the headlines.

Last month the media got all excited over a study showing that the right amount of exercise, if weight loss is your goal, is 300 minutes a week.

Gretchen Reynolds wrote about it in the New York Times. The headline? To Lose Weight With Exercise, Aim for 300 Minutes a Week.

There are 4 things I want to say about this:

First, that’s an awful lot of exercise for someone who doesn’t work out now. Here on the blog we always tell people trying to establish a fitness routine to start small. 300 minutes isn’t small. And if you already do work out that much now and aren’t losing weight as a result, why expect a change?

Second, there also people (ME!) who do exercise vigorously more than 300 minutes a week. I ride or race my bike on Zwift at least 6 hours a week, or 360 minutes. I also lift weights. I do yoga. I walk Cheddar. As my son might say, 300 minutes is baby food.

But I’ve never lost weight through exercising. I’m not alone. See Plus sized endurance athletes, we exist!. These are all people who workout and train a lot and who don’t lose weight as a result. See also Big Women on Bikes. I’ve written lots on the blog about being a larger women who rides, here and here for example.

Third, I worry that people who start exercising to lose weight and who don’t lose weight, will quit exercising and miss out on all the other health benefits of working out. Exercising is the single biggest positive change you can make for your health. But if you think it’s about weight loss, you are very likely to be disappointed. Don’t blame exercise and don’t blame yourself. It’s just the way bodies work.

If you started exercising for that reason and you didn’t lose weight, what now? See You are exercising to lose weight and you aren’t losing any, what now?

Fourth, if we start to think of exercise as tied to weight loss, then what about the thin people? Doesn’t this inadvertently exclude thin people from hearing the right message about how important and good and valuable exercise is?

See How equating being fat with being out of shape hurts thin people too.

Many years ago I saw a physiotherapist who started talking to me about how he wished his wife would exercise, for her health and well-being. The problem is that she’s naturally thin and doesn’t think she needs to. She’s not athletic, finds sports boring, and has lots of other things in her life that interest her more than exercise. He told me his wife’s doctor has never once mentioned to her that exercise would be good or asked about how much she works out now. She looks like she works out (code for ‘she’s thin’) and so no one asks about exercise or recommends it.

(This is out of my wheelhouse, and I didn’t go look at the actual study, but it also seems to me to be short term weight loss and pretty small numbers in terms of study participants. Catherine Womack is our public health policy blogger who frequently reads the studies behind the headlines and explains them to our community. Maybe she’ll go look!)

For more commentary follow Yoni Freedhoff on Twitter about this study.

You might also want to watch his talk on rebranding exercise.

See also If You Stop Thinking Of Exercise As A Way To Lose Weight, You May Actually Enjoy It.


7 thoughts on “The benefits of exercise are many, but long term weight loss isn’t (necessarily) one of them

  1. I honestly don’t think I have ever had a doctor ask me about exercise. I am a fairly average size, and naturally muscular. I am tall enough that I carry weight well and it is mainly in my legs.

    I am back to exercising to feel better in my body. After many years of regular and consistent exercise 2020 got me off track. My strength, flexibility and fitness level are lower. I am very stiff in the morning.

    I have also most likely gained some weight, and it sits in my middle, where it never has before. I have no scale, so I’m not sure, but my stomach is in my way in some yoga poses. I am 49, so I sometimes think perimenopause is also getting me!

    The past 9 days of moving have already helped me feel better. My digestion is improved. I feel taller and moving seems easier.

    I’m glad I don’t weigh myself, because I tune into these very minor shifts and they motivate me to keep going, find my groove and slowly work my way back up to a stronger, more flexible, and, hopefully, more fit me.


  2. Your “physiotherapist”;) is still reading, being challenged, learning and enjoying the blog.

    An update to our past conversation would be that there is now a very clear understanding that exercise would be/is beneficial, but sadly she also recognizes that weight gain would be one of the only factors to push her into it regularly (certainly there is now an intermittent attempt to overcome her dread and be active;).

    Unfortunately knowledge doesn’t result in motivation for everyone. Difficult and tricky stuff.

    Appreciate the continued efforts you put forth in educating us.



      1. No worries. Felt honoured that you remembered, and to be a small part of it all. Plus, it’s an important point!

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