The Secret to Weight Loss Through Exercise

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Exercise ramps up appetite, helping to explain why calories burned don’t necessarily equal calories lost, so how can we lose weight through physical activity?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Most overweight individuals evidently tend to choose exercise as their first approach to weight loss. When unrealistic hopes clash with reality, the disappointment may lead to an abandonment of weight-loss efforts altogether as an exercise in futility (no pun intended). Our false expectations may also give us license to overeat. Our pie-in-the-sky notions about the power of exercise may just be used to justify an extra slice of pie right here on earth. Some researchers warn that labeling menus with calorie equivalents of exercise could be counterproductive, backfiring if people rationalize their indulgences after a workout. This concern has actually been put to the test.

Exercise psychologists took a group of men and women, put them on stationary bikes, and had them cycle until they burned either 50 calories or more than 250 calories. Unbeknownst to them, the researchers manipulated the machines to give false readouts, such that in actuality both groups burned the same number of calories. They just thought they burned more or less. Then, they were offered a meal 10 minutes later, ostensibly to measure the “effects of exercise on taste perception,” but the real purpose was to covertly measure how much people ate. Those who falsely believed they had burned off more calories did seem to demonstrate a greater “license to eat,” ending up eating significantly more calories (mostly in the form of chocolate chip cookies).

After a workout, people may be tempted to treat themselves for their sweaty sacrifice. To prevent this knee-jerk reaction from undermining our efforts, we should strive to make exercise less of a chore. In a paper entitled “Is it fun or exercise? The framing of physical activity biases subsequent snacking,” a study is described in which individuals were randomized to the same amount of physical activity, but just described differently. Half were told they were going on a “scenic walk,” and the other half were told they were going on an “exercise walk.” Afterwards, researchers covertly measured how much dessert everyone took at a subsequent meal. Those in the movement-as-exercise group reportedly served themselves about 35 percent more chocolate pudding than the movement-as-fun group. This is all the more reason to choose activities that are enjoyable, such as walking with friends, while listening to music, or watching a video on the treadmill. Reframing exercise as play rather than work may not only make for a more sustainable regimen, but may make us less likely to consciously or unconsciously feel the need to later reward ourselves at the buffet line.

Even just thinking about exercise may compel people to eat more food. Those randomized to simply read about physical activity went on to serve themselves nearly 60 percent more M&Ms than those in the control group, adding up to hundreds of extra calories. The researchers concluded: “simply imagining exercising leads participants to serve themselves more food.”

Expending energy through exercise may not just psychologically predispose us to eat more, but may physiologically make us hungrier. We evolved in the context of scarcity; so, our body places great value on rapidly replenishing lost fat stores. This helps explain why the average weight loss with exercise training is only 30 percent of that predicted based on the number of extra calories burned. Calories in versus calories out can be complicated by the fact that changes on one side of the equation can affect the other side. In other words, we can work up an appetite.

Carefully controlled studies show that caloric intake tends to rise over time to match any increase in caloric expenditure, making significant weight loss through exercise alone remarkably difficult. This doesn’t happen over a day or two. After a workout, there may not be an immediate increase in hunger, but averaged over the week or weeks, our appetite does tend to increase to balance out most of the extra calories we’ve been burning. This calorie compensation isn’t perfect, though. So, we can end up with a net loss in body fat, particularly at higher exercise levels. So the secret to weight loss through exercise may be sheer volume––at least 300 minutes a week to achieve appreciable fat loss.

This regulation of our appetite through activity works in both directions. Just as there exists a higher level of exercise where we can start to outpace our appetite and lose weight, there’s a lower level of exercise where our body loses the ability to sufficiently downgrade our appetite, and we gain weight. This sedentary zone where our appetite becomes uncoupled from our activity level appears to start at around 7,100 steps a day.

Let’s say you start out as a really active person, chowing down on nearly 2,900 calories a day, and, for whatever reason, have to cut back on exercise. You’d think you’d gain a lot of weight, but you’re surprised that you don’t. Basically, no increased odds of gaining significant body fat. What happened? With your drop in exercise came an inadvertent drop in appetite. But there’s a limit to how far your appetite can drop. Once you cross that threshold, once you dip below logging at least 7,100 steps or so a day on your pedometer, your appetite doesn’t slow much further to match, and the pounds can start to pile on. Your body tries to keep your weight steady by adjusting your appetite, but we just weren’t designed to handle such extreme low levels of movement that sadly characterizes most of the U.S. population.

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Motion graphics by Avo Media

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Most overweight individuals evidently tend to choose exercise as their first approach to weight loss. When unrealistic hopes clash with reality, the disappointment may lead to an abandonment of weight-loss efforts altogether as an exercise in futility (no pun intended). Our false expectations may also give us license to overeat. Our pie-in-the-sky notions about the power of exercise may just be used to justify an extra slice of pie right here on earth. Some researchers warn that labeling menus with calorie equivalents of exercise could be counterproductive, backfiring if people rationalize their indulgences after a workout. This concern has actually been put to the test.

Exercise psychologists took a group of men and women, put them on stationary bikes, and had them cycle until they burned either 50 calories or more than 250 calories. Unbeknownst to them, the researchers manipulated the machines to give false readouts, such that in actuality both groups burned the same number of calories. They just thought they burned more or less. Then, they were offered a meal 10 minutes later, ostensibly to measure the “effects of exercise on taste perception,” but the real purpose was to covertly measure how much people ate. Those who falsely believed they had burned off more calories did seem to demonstrate a greater “license to eat,” ending up eating significantly more calories (mostly in the form of chocolate chip cookies).

After a workout, people may be tempted to treat themselves for their sweaty sacrifice. To prevent this knee-jerk reaction from undermining our efforts, we should strive to make exercise less of a chore. In a paper entitled “Is it fun or exercise? The framing of physical activity biases subsequent snacking,” a study is described in which individuals were randomized to the same amount of physical activity, but just described differently. Half were told they were going on a “scenic walk,” and the other half were told they were going on an “exercise walk.” Afterwards, researchers covertly measured how much dessert everyone took at a subsequent meal. Those in the movement-as-exercise group reportedly served themselves about 35 percent more chocolate pudding than the movement-as-fun group. This is all the more reason to choose activities that are enjoyable, such as walking with friends, while listening to music, or watching a video on the treadmill. Reframing exercise as play rather than work may not only make for a more sustainable regimen, but may make us less likely to consciously or unconsciously feel the need to later reward ourselves at the buffet line.

Even just thinking about exercise may compel people to eat more food. Those randomized to simply read about physical activity went on to serve themselves nearly 60 percent more M&Ms than those in the control group, adding up to hundreds of extra calories. The researchers concluded: “simply imagining exercising leads participants to serve themselves more food.”

Expending energy through exercise may not just psychologically predispose us to eat more, but may physiologically make us hungrier. We evolved in the context of scarcity; so, our body places great value on rapidly replenishing lost fat stores. This helps explain why the average weight loss with exercise training is only 30 percent of that predicted based on the number of extra calories burned. Calories in versus calories out can be complicated by the fact that changes on one side of the equation can affect the other side. In other words, we can work up an appetite.

Carefully controlled studies show that caloric intake tends to rise over time to match any increase in caloric expenditure, making significant weight loss through exercise alone remarkably difficult. This doesn’t happen over a day or two. After a workout, there may not be an immediate increase in hunger, but averaged over the week or weeks, our appetite does tend to increase to balance out most of the extra calories we’ve been burning. This calorie compensation isn’t perfect, though. So, we can end up with a net loss in body fat, particularly at higher exercise levels. So the secret to weight loss through exercise may be sheer volume––at least 300 minutes a week to achieve appreciable fat loss.

This regulation of our appetite through activity works in both directions. Just as there exists a higher level of exercise where we can start to outpace our appetite and lose weight, there’s a lower level of exercise where our body loses the ability to sufficiently downgrade our appetite, and we gain weight. This sedentary zone where our appetite becomes uncoupled from our activity level appears to start at around 7,100 steps a day.

Let’s say you start out as a really active person, chowing down on nearly 2,900 calories a day, and, for whatever reason, have to cut back on exercise. You’d think you’d gain a lot of weight, but you’re surprised that you don’t. Basically, no increased odds of gaining significant body fat. What happened? With your drop in exercise came an inadvertent drop in appetite. But there’s a limit to how far your appetite can drop. Once you cross that threshold, once you dip below logging at least 7,100 steps or so a day on your pedometer, your appetite doesn’t slow much further to match, and the pounds can start to pile on. Your body tries to keep your weight steady by adjusting your appetite, but we just weren’t designed to handle such extreme low levels of movement that sadly characterizes most of the U.S. population.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Doctor's Note

If you missed the previous video, watch The Exercise “Myth” for Weight Loss.

Of course, there are some Foods Designed to Hijack Our Appetites. What if you took that component away? You could get 200-Pound Weight Loss Without Hunger.

For the best way to lose weight, check out my book How Not to Diet from your local public library. You can get a taste with my presentation on the topic: Evidence-Based Weight Loss.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here. Read our important information about translations here.

Subscribe to our free newsletter and receive the preface of Dr. Greger’s upcoming book How Not to Age.

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