Should You Focus On Exercise When You Want to Lose Weight?

Mature African American woman smiling.

Exercise may not be the best way to lose weight. A quick Google search on exercise reveals many impressive health benefits and weight loss is not among them. It turns out exercise alone offers minimal impact on weight loss, despite what we have believed for decades.

That means much of the weight loss rhetoric we’ve been fed in high doses hasn’t only been confusing and misguided. Still, it has also been expensive, driving Americans to spend billions on gym memberships and exercise equipment guaranteed to help us lose weight.

We Are Following Some Outdated Advice

Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, MD, MPH, MPA, Associate Professor of Medicine, Mass General Hospital, Pediatrician, and Obesity Medicine Physician Scientist, urges us to forget everything we think we know about losing weight, specifically what she calls an oversimplified idea suggesting to lose weight, we must burn more calories than we consume.

In an article on the Harvard Health website, she insists, “This idea of ‘a calorie in, a calorie out’ when it comes to weight loss is not only antiquated, it’s just wrong.” The archaic claim seems to ignore that how effectively the body burns calories depends on its metabolic rate, gut health, and the quality of food intake. Now that makes sense.

Curious about how others might react to this information, we reached out to Andrea Farquharson, who has lost weight, burning loads of calories with exercise in the past, to find out where she is on her weight loss journey. “I just celebrated my 50th and have minimal motivation to work out, especially dealing with bursitis in my left hip,” she laments. She works out four days weekly with trainers, seeing no results. We know she’s not alone.

What Do Doctors, Nutritionists, and Psychologists Have to Say?

To shed some light on the dichotomy of exercise vs weight loss, I turned to medical doctors, registered dietician nutritionists, and psychologists to hear their take on what exercise Can & Can’t do for weight loss. If exercise doesn’t significantly impact weight loss, then what does? Dr. William D. Stanley, MD, FASAM, who specializes in internal medicine & addiction, tells us that as a primary care physician, he takes the responsibility of seriously conveying to patients the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. He says, “It is just as important as exercise is to prevent weight gain. Practicing healthy, balanced eating habits may matter more.” Dr. Cody Stanford agrees that improving the quality of foods and making sustainable lifestyle improvements are crucial to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

Researchers at NIH & CDC agree that exercise can have profound effects on preventing chronic disease, reducing cancer risk, improving mobility and quality of life, preventing injuries, improving sleep, and increasing longevity. Exercise may delay and, in some cases, prevent mental and physical impairment, like Alzheimer’s and dementia, supporting the ultimate goal of living a happier, healthier life in mind, body, and soul. Exercise cannot compensate for an unhealthy diet, lifestyle choices, or a toxic relationship with food. It can’t effectively treat eating disorders.

Katrice Mayo, MS, RDN, CLT, is passionate about developing healthy lifestyle changes with her clients over time that nourish and fuel the body and build muscle while prioritizing adequate rest and reducing stress. She says, “Chronic stress and the stress response will (negatively) impact what you choose to eat, why and how you’re eating.”

Rather than focusing on the number on the scale, Mayo maintains that an essential part of sustainable weight loss is eating more quality whole foods and less processed food with trans fat and little or no nutritional value. She cautions people to choose real food for energy and to think twice before choosing processed protein or energy bars or protein bars over nutrient-dense, whole food.

Experts, we hear you. Weight loss is unique for all of us.” Embracing exercise and learning how to nourish the body—paying attention to hunger cues, learning to stop eating when you’re full, and frequently evaluating when and why will help you learn more about your nutritional needs and help with maintaining your weight loss.

Where Should You Begin?

Dr. Radisha Brown, Psychologist and CEO of IThrive Therapy believes, “On any weight loss journey, the most important relationship is the relationship with ourselves. This dynamic sets the tone for all other relationships, including our connection to exercise & food.

If you haven’t considered working with a nutritionist, know that “working with a nutritionist is more than being provided a meal plan to lose and maintain weight,” says Carlie Saint-Laurent Beaucejour of She maintains that a Registered Dietician Nutritionist offers personalized nutrition care that considers your unique social/emotional, physiological, and mental health, the whole you when helping you shift that mindset.

Whether it’s a medical professional or fitness trainer, surround yourself with positive, like-minded people who share your commitment to making positive, informed nutrition and lifestyle changes that support your individualized needs and health goals.

Check out this assessment from The Mayo Clinic to see whether you are ready to make some changes.