“I exercise to try and lose weight, but then I’m ravenous and eat more than I would have in the first place. Is it even worth it to exercise?” That’s what Jenna asked when she called to discuss my weight loss program recently.
I was quick to let her know that exercise IS worth it – for a whole lot of health reasons. But the question of how much to exercise if your goal is weight loss is a complex one. Weight loss is a complicated puzzle – you need all of the pieces to not only lose weight but keep it off. That’s why I’ve spent so much time putting together my transformative Slim by Choice online course.
Still, not everyone is ready to commit to such a rigorous program, and knowing what research says about weight loss and exercise can’t hurt, right? Research in this area is ongoing, and many studies are small. Still, the results are interesting to consider.
One study back in 2012 showed that while exercise was important to weight loss, too much exercise could hinder progress (Rosenkilde et al). In this study of three groups of young, overweight, (but not obese) men, the group that exercised enough to burn 300 calories per day lost the most weight – an average of seven pounds. The control group, who didn’t change their exercise habits, didn’t lose any weight at all. The third group, who exercised enough to burn 600 calories per day, lost an average of five pounds.
In addition to losing the most weight, those who burned 300 calories per day had more energy throughout the day. So why did the group that exercise the most not lose the most weight? The research showed that not only did that group increase what they ate to make up for the calories they burned (like Jenna’s excessive hunger prompted her to do), but they didn’t move as much as the other group during the day.
Before you get too excited thinking you shouldn’t exercise too hard, let’s look at a couple of more recent studies. A 2018 study explored whether the caloric compensation levels out after a certain amount of exercise – and found that indeed, it does.
Researchers followed two groups of overweight, sedentary adults who began exercising and burned either 1500 or 3000 calories per week working out for three months. They found that all participants ate an average of 1,000 extra calories, regardless of how many they had burned. So in this study, those who exercised more lost more weight.
The researchers weren’t convinced that this study told the full story, however. They wondered if specific exercise schedules would change the outcome. So they repeated the experiment with some adjustments to include novel exercise schedules. They split a group of 44 overweight, sedentary individuals into two groups.
The first was asked to exercise twice per week for at least 90 minutes, or until 750 calories had been burned each session (1500 calories per week). There were no limitations on the type of exercise they could choose.
The other group was asked to exercise six times per week, for 40-60 minutes, burning nearly 500 calories per session(3000 per week). The results were similar; the group that exercised the most was the group that lost weight, approximately four pounds in 12 weeks.
In this study, researchers found another difference in the groups through blood work they had drawn. The group that burned approximately 3,000 calories per week showed positive changes in the hormone leptin, which can reduce appetite. That suggests an additional bonus from increased exercise.
So what’s the truth? Will too much exercise hinder weight loss? Or does exercising more really help? Unfortunately, the research we have just doesn’t point to one clear answer. And that’s probably because we are all unique individuals and there is no one right way to lose weight. You have to consider all the factors.
In that 2012 study, for instance, burning 600 calories per day means 4200 each week! That’s a lot of exercise – arguably too much. But the group that burned 300 calories per day works out to be about 2,100 per week – which is right in between the groups in the later studies. So perhaps there’s a “sweet spot” – not too much, not too little – that allows for easier weight loss.
I believe that exercise is a vitally important part of a healthy routine, whether you’re trying to lose weight or not. I also believe in too much of a good thing – and have seen women suffer when they go overboard with the exercise. This is especially true if they’re suffering from adrenal imbalance or other hormonal dysfunction!
My best advice is to find ways to get yourself moving more regularly, and work with a professional to find what will work best for your unique situation. Walking for half an hour each day is a great place to start!
I talked to Jenna about finding the right balance of exercise, healthy diet and other lifestyle changes. Because she realized it was confusing to sort out all the variables on her own, she decided to give my program a try. After a few short weeks, she’s seen great success – and is actually enjoying the exercise!
You can find the right level of exercise for yourself as well. And don’t forget – finding an activity you love can make you forget it’s exercise. Maybe try snowshoeing, cross country skiing or dancing this winter; you just might find a new passion (and lose some weight in the process)!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD