Can I lose weight by exercise alone?

Kimberly Garrison
Fitness Specialist

Fitness expert Kimberly Garrison discusses whether or not you can lose weight by exercise alone. Watch Kimberly Garrison's video for tips and information on fitness, health and wellness.

Dr. Jesse N. Mills, MD

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Troy Taylor, NASM Elite Trainer
Fitness Specialist

Exercise, while critically important to your overall health and well-being has a very specific energy demand that is measurable. What this means is; whatever you choose to do as far as exercise is concerned costs your body a specific amount of calories to do it. Thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise can cost anywhere from 150 to 350 calories depending on what you do, how much you weigh, and the intensity at which you do it. If you simply replace those calories that you just burned with an energy bar or a large supplement shake and then continue on eating the rest of the day as you normally would, then while you will be better off because of exercising your weight loss will be negligible or nonexistent. The key to healthy weight loss is combining caloric restriction with additional caloric expenditure. This means healthy reduced eating and healthy exercise.

To lose weight you can increase the amount of exercise you do, but you will never reach your goal if you do not change your diet also. By diet I mean the foods you eat, and the frequency at which you eat your meals.

To put it simply...

  • You must eat good quality food.
  • Eat 4-6 small meals a day.
  • Get on an exercise plan and stick to it.

When you have these three things covered, you will be on your way to losing weight. Just make sure you aren't consuming more calories than you are burning. If you need help with that find a personal trainer that can help you get on the right track. Make sure also that you are having fun with your exercise and nutrition. If you are enjoying yourself and are happy with results that you are seeing, you will be more likely to continue with your plan and reach your weight loss goals.

The general conclusion from many, including the most recent studies on exercise and weight loss, is that exercise alone is not a weight loss program for anyone. Diet is simply far more effective and easier in producing weight loss, but exercise is just as important in maintaining the loss and in delivering unique long-term health benefits that diet alone cannot. Here are the latest facts:

The latest exercise and weight study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) completed in March 2010 followed 34,000 chronic exercisers for 13 years and the average weight gain was 6lbs; 13.3% of those who gained slightly less but still gained, performed 60min/day of moderate to vigorous exercise and were normal weight at the start. 

Conclusion from study:

  • Exercise alone is not a weight loss program for anyone
  • If overweight, it’s too late to reverse it with exercise alone, you must restrict calories

Earlier short-term studies comparing diet alone and exercise alone were even more dramatic:

  • Diet alone groups lost an average of 19.8 pounds in 6 months, while exercise alone groups lost less than 2 pounds in the same period.

Keep in mind that one single fact determines the rate of weight/fat loss: the average daily calorie deficit. This is defined as the difference between how many calories you burn and how many calories you consume. Therefore it’s easier to remove 500 calories of food from your daily diet to produce a 1 pound/wk loss of weight than it is to perform 1.5hrs/day of vigorous exercise to accomplish the same result. That said, exercise is needed to improve your body structure, function/performance, longevity, visual appearance, etc. Exercise also increases daily calorie burn and helps you maintain your desired weight. So participating in both proper diet and exercise, you get faster, healthier and longer-term weight loss.


When our goal is to lose weight, increasing exercise while staying aware of our nutrition intake works. Sometimes increasing our exercise will also increase hunger and so it becomes that much more important to eat proper foods.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.