Does Exercise Always Result in Weight Loss?

Exercise equals weight loss. Or does it? In actuality, the relationship between physical activity and weight is complicated. We explore why here.

Woman doing medicine ball squats in front of a rock climbing wall

Exercise more = lose weight ✔️

That’s what we’ve always believed in. But chances are, you know of someone who works out seven days a week — and yet, unfortunately, don't look like they're making progress on the weight loss front. Heck, maybe it's you.

What's wrong? You'll have to continue reading; here, we explore the relationship between exercise and weight loss and, more importantly, how that applies to you.

Exercise doesn’t always translate into weight loss

Your weight comes down to calorie balance: consume more energy than your body needs, and the number on the scale goes up. Eat fewer calories than your body burns, on the other hand, you lose weight.

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Given this, it’d only make sense that exercise — which increases your daily energy expenditure — would lead to weight loss, right?

Theoretically, yes. But the thing most of us forget is that exercise plays only a small role in the energy balance equation (more specifically, a part of the “calories-out” portion). See, by thinking that exercise will always translate into weight loss, we’re assuming that the following two things hold constant:

  1. Calorie consumption: How often have you ordered more for lunch because you "worked so hard" during your morning workout session? You're not alone. In fact, the phenomenon of “post-exercise overeating” is a well-documented one. According to this 2012 review, researchers found that people generally overestimate how much energy exercise burns — and tend to eat more whenever they work out as a result.
  2. Post-workout energy expenditure: Exercise isn’t the form of calorie-burning movement you do. There’s also your NEAT, aka “non-exercise activity thermogenesis”. So, that’ll be stuff like pacing your living room on a call, walking the dog, tending to your lawn, etc. Think back to the last time you worked hard at the gym. What did you do when you got home? Take a shower, curl up in bed, and watch TV (maybe with a cold one in hand)? Research suggests that many people slow down after a workout, which means they spend less energy on non-gym activities.

Post-exercise overeating, paired with compensatory behaviors, spell bad news for your calorie balance. Beyond negating the calories you've burned during exercise, these two "culprits" could nudge you into the "excess calories" territory.

Should you care about this? It depends.

Okay, so engaging in exercise doesn’t guarantee weight loss. Does it matter? Should you care? As always, it depends.

If you’re trying to lose weight

If you're trying to lose weight, this would be incredibly relevant for you — you'll have to learn how to cope with the increased physical activity in a way that doesn't hinder your weight loss progress.

We've written plenty of articles covering the topic, some of those include;

How to Eat and Workout for Healthy, Sustainable Fat Loss
Long-term sustainability is key to successful fat loss; here’s how you can make small lifestyle tweaks (diet and fitness) to make that happen.
How To Break Through A Weight Loss Plateau
And for a while, it seemed like your efforts were paying off–the numbers on the scale keep creeping down, your jeans feel looser, and everyone around you is noticing the progress you’ve made. But all of a sudden, it stops

But those short on time can refer to the following tips:

  • Track your calories: Doing so gives you a better sense of what you’re eating over a day, helping you better manage your calorie intake. Note that you don’t have to count calories if you're not comfortable doing so — or simply unwilling to. A viable alternative is to be more mindful of the foods you're eating. Check-in with yourself; ask if you're truly hungry or if you're eating because you think you "deserve a treat".
  • Maintain your NEAT levels: Remind yourself to stay active after every exercise session. Those with activity trackers could set a goal of hitting 10,000 steps every day, for instance. Don’t worry if you don’t have a wearable tracker; you could always set aside some time in your schedule to take a walk around the neighborhood (in the evening once you get off work).

If you’re ambivalent about losing weight

Let's say you don't care about losing weight (it'd be great, sure, but you'd be perfectly fine maintaining your current weight): did this article give you a reason to stop exercising?

Um, not so fast. Come back.

While exercise — on its own — may not necessarily translate into weight loss, it still brings about many independent physical and emotional health benefits, including:

  • Lowered chronic disease risk: According to this 2021 review of hundreds of studies investigating the relationships between fitness, weight, heart health, and longevity, researchers concluded that obese people typically lower their risks of metabolic disorders and premature death far more by improving their fitness levels that by losing weight or dieting!
  • Protects against mental disorders: Besides providing that much-needed endorphin boost, regular physical activity can also play a crucial role in preventing various mental health disorders, including depression, generalized anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Improved sexual function: Ah yes, this is an interesting one. Regular exercise is associated with a lower risk of erectile problems in men. For example, this study showed that sedentary middle-aged men assigned to participate in a vigorous exercise program for nine months reported more frequent sexual activity, improved sexual function, and greater satisfaction. Exercise doesn’t only benefit the men, either. Research shows that women who’re more physically active tend to report greater sexual desire, arousal, and sexual satisfaction than those who’re sedentary.

There are many reasons to exercise

And weight loss doesn't have to be part of it (although, if it is, you'll have to be extra careful about your "post-exercise compensatory behaviors").

But regardless of your underlying motivation to exercise, you can always count on GymStreak to support you on your fitness journey.

As an AI-powered personal trainer app, Gymstreak can:

  • Tailor training programs to your needs (i.e., training experience specific and equipment specific)
  • Guide you through correct exercise form and execution
  • Connect you with like-minded fitness enthusiasts — so you stay motivated

Sounds good? Then go ahead and download GymStreak here.

References

Gaesser, G. A., & Angadi, S. S. (2021). Obesity treatment: Weight loss versus increasing fitness and physical activity for reducing health risks. IScience, 24(10). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2021.102995

Melanson, E. L., Keadle, S. K., Donnelly, J. E., Braun, B., & King, N. A. (2013). Resistance to exercise-induced weight loss: Compensatory behavioral adaptations. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 45(8), 1600–1609. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e31828ba942

Meston, C. M., & Gorzalka, B. B. (1995). The effects of sympathetic activation on physiological and subjective sexual arousal in women. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33(6), 651–664. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(95)00006-J

Thivel, D., Aucouturier, J., Metz, L., Morio, B., & Duché, P. (2014). Is there spontaneous energy expenditure compensation in response to intensive exercise in obese youth? Pediatric Obesity, 9(2), 147–154. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2047-6310.2013.00148.x

Thomas, D. M., Bouchard, C., Church, T., Slentz, C., Kraus, W. E., Redman, L. M., Martin, C. K., Silva, A. M., Vossen, M., Westerterp, K., & Heymsfield, S. B. (2012). Why do individuals not lose more weight from an exercise intervention at a defined dose? An energy balance analysis. Obesity Reviews : An Official Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 13(10), 835–847. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-789X.2012.01012.x

White, J. R., Case, D. A., McWhirter, D., & Mattison, A. M. (1990). Enhanced sexual behavior in exercising men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 19(3), 193–209. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01541546