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Exercising, but Not Losing Weight? Change Things up to Get More Out of Exercise

When people tell me their weight loss stories, they often say the first step was going back to the gym. If weight loss for health is your goal, the gym or some form of exercise should ideally be a part of the journey. But using exercise alone as the only weight loss strategy can lead to disappointment, and very little weight loss, without the right approach.

Becoming more active almost always improves heart health, insulin resistance, mood, muscle tone, and strength. But a lack of weight loss progress can be discouraging, even despite the other benefits of exercise. If weight loss isn’t happening, exercise can be uncomfortable and cause wear and tear on weight-bearing joints. Overall, a very active lifestyle for the purpose of weight loss can become demotivating and difficult to maintain.1

Instead, set yourself up with a lasting and healthy way to incorporate exercise in your weight management strategy. The best outcomes resulting from lifestyle changes do, in fact, always include exercise. And so, the sooner you learn how to incorporate exercise effectively into your weight management plan, the better!1,2

Spend more time doing lower-intensity activities

You may be surprised to learn the amount of exercise alone (with no changes to diet) that is needed to actually result in weight loss. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), 225 to 250 minutes or more of moderate exercise per week is required to achieve enough weight loss to improve health. That is about 35 minutes of exercise that gets your heart rate up and makes you breathe faster than normal, every day. And it must be done consistently, day after day. Or, you could break it up into longer sessions, fewer times per week.3,4

Many people I have worked with start off with exercise that is really intense, but less frequent. A common misconception is that you have to breathe really hard and sweat a lot to lose weight. If you are doing very intense exercise sessions like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for 30 minutes, maybe 3 times a week, you may need to add something more for weight loss. Because that only adds up to 90 minutes of activity. And remember, you need 225 minutes or more!3,4

In my experience, less frequent, overly intense workouts can interfere with longer, consistent workouts. Intense workouts may leave you feeling too sore or mentally depleted to still have the energy for a bout of lighter activity later in the day. So you end up taking the day off, or staying on the couch to rest from your workout instead of meeting up with a friend for a walk.

Consider keeping a closer tab on your diet

One can argue that exercise increases awareness of what we are eating and may incline us toward improving our diet. But exercise alone may not be enough to get weight loss results.

When the amount of exercise increases in a sustained way that becomes a habit, your appetite and food intake may increase because you are using more energy. This is a natural function of the body’s weight "thermostat," and means that exercise does not always result in negative energy balance for everyone. Research shows that the best way to lose weight is to use exercise AND diet to achieve weight loss.2,4

Therefore, in order for exercise to have the greatest benefit for weight loss, it can help to track and put a cap on your calorie intake. Even just capping it at your typical calorie needs would go a long way to make sure the exercise has its intended effect. For example, if you usually need 2200 calories and start exercising to burn about 200 calories per day, make sure your energy intake stays at 2200 calories instead of increasing to 2400 per day. That way, the exercise actually contributes to your weight loss.2,4

The bottom line

For most people, going to the gym 3 to 4 times per week is not enough activity to produce meaningful weight loss (remember, 225 minutes or more!). Whatever workout routine you do should be more of a marathon rather than a sprint. It should be something that you can perform consistently for at least 225 minutes per week. Most people I have worked with find brisk walking works very well to reach this goal.3,4

And remember, short bouts of movement count, too! For example, taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Walking during your lunch break. Parking farther away to get more steps in. Doing a few rounds of jumping jacks in between meetings. Every little thing counts.4

And to get the most out of your workouts, make sure you track your food intake as well and keep that in check as you become more active. There are great apps and tools out there to track your calorie intake and make sure you are on target. Remember to track weekends and celebrations too, not just the days you are thinking about it. That way you can make informed choices, and reach your health goals faster.2,4

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Obesity.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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