American Council on Exercise by American Council on Exercise

Every day, millions of us tell ourselves, in our most determined inner voice, “I need to lose weight; I’m going to start working out to lose those extra pounds!”

And, to demonstrate our conviction, we join a gym, jigger our schedules to block off time for exercise, and begin to work out with admirable intensity and frequency.

These are all fantastic life choices. After all, the benefits of exercise are wide-ranging, covering physical, mental and emotional health. Prioritizing exercise is clearly one of the best and most important life choices an individual can make.

But for those who are looking only at their waistline, if the scale isn’t showing enough weight loss after a few weeks, it may lead to discouragement and, ultimately, a return to old habits and a sedentary lifestyle.

When we exercise, we burn calories. There’s no debate there. But some difficult and uncomfortable questions related to exercise and weight loss deserve consideration:

What is the real connection between exercise and weight loss?

Is it reasonable to assume that the typical individual can achieve meaningful, sustainable weight loss by increasing physical activity without a corresponding effort to improve dietary intake? 

And, more pointedly, should we think of exercise as a weight loss drug?

The answer to the last question, according to Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is no. “Exercise is not a weight loss drug, and so long as we continue to push exercise primarily (and sadly sometimes exclusively) in the name of preventing or treating adult or childhood obesity, we’ll also continue to shortchange the public about the genuinely incredible health benefits of exercise and, simultaneously, misinform them about the realities of long-term weight management.”

If Freedhoff is correct, and there is certainly evidence to support his assertion, then it suggests that someone who ventures to lose weight by increasing physical activity alone will likely fail to achieve his or her desired weight loss goal. As a result, that individual will quite possibly stop being physically active—not an illogical decision. If an activity fails to achieve the desired outcome, it makes sense to try something else.

What’s missing from the equation is proper nutrition, which goes hand in hand with regular exercise. Healthy eating is not only the key element of weight loss; it also provides much-needed energy, which helps people remain motivated to be more active. Yet, as Freedhoff suggests, the push for more physical activity without a corresponding push for healthier dietary choices is unbalanced, which leads us to the tragedy of framing a weight loss goal around physical activity alone. It’s simply the wrong metric, which will likely end up discouraging people from maintaining an active lifestyle.

On the other hand, when the results of ongoing physical activity are measured by an overall improvement in health and well-being—such as improved blood pressure, better sleep or higher energy levels—individuals are more likely to be greatly encouraged by the results.

According to the 19th Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy (2014–2017), “Being physically active is one of the most important ways to improve health and well-being throughout our lives.”

That is why it is so important that, with more passion than ever, we fiercely promote physical activity as a wonder drug for overall wellness while being sensitive about managing expectations related to exercise and weight loss. 

When we overemphasize weight loss and underemphasize the other health benefits of exercise, we may be losing the opportunity to harness individuals’ impassioned desire to change their lifestyles. In short, we may be setting people up to fail.