“Does exercise make it harder to lose weight?”

By Coach Chris, CF-L2, PN-1

This week, a friend of mine texted me this question: 

“Is it true that exercising makes it harder to lose weight?”

She had been commenting on a post about weight loss & exercise in a Facebook group for physicians, and one of the other commenters continually stated that “exercise makes weight loss harder.” My friend wanted to know if this was true, or is it more nuanced than that.

As with many nutrition related questions, the context matters a lot. It may be true for some people, but not true for others. We’re not looking for an easy “out” on the answer — nutrition and lifestyle is often far more nuanced than these blanket statements. Rarely are these issues clear-cut. So where does that leave us on today’s question?

Let’s start by looking at the wording & phrasing of the question. It’s important to note that “weight loss” and “fat loss” are often used interchangeably, but are not the same thing. Weight loss refers to the total body weight — the number you see when you step on the scale. Fat loss is specifically losing body fat, which generally speaking is the part of someone’s overall weight that we’re trying to reduce when we talk about “losing weight.” Most of the time, people are not intentionally working to lose muscle mass (or bones?). 

“Exercise” in general can mean a great many things. Are we talking about occasional 20 minutes of walking, or 3 hour pain fests on the treadmill? Strength training, cardio, intervals? How much, and how often? The amount and type of exercise we choose will influence changes in our body composition — our physical makeup of body fat vs. lean muscle. 

We also don’t really know what that person means when they say it makes it “harder,” but we can infer that they’re really saying your progress would be slower.

We know that fat loss occurs when we put our body in a caloric deficit — we are expending more calories than we consume. Exercise in general increases our caloric output, and can help put us in that caloric deficit we need to burn body fat. Usually this helps with fat loss.  However, it’s also true that many types of exercise also simultaneously build lean muscle mass. It’s very possible, especially for someone who is fairly new to exercise, that they are losing body fat, while also building new lean muscle. 

What does that mean for our question of the day? This means that with some exercise regimens, your overall bodyweight may stay the same, or even increase because you are losing body fat while also gaining muscle. In this scenario, the shape and appearance of your body is changing. You may feel your clothes fitting more loosely, and start to notice some new muscle definition. However, the weight on the scale may not reflect any changes. In this sense, exercise may be making it hard to lose total bodyweight, if that is your sole goal regardless of body composition (which generally speaking is not the best idea).  

Let’s say we interpret the question a different way, and they’re actually talking about fat loss, not total bodyweight. There’s one scenario in which we could see exercise hampering someone’s ability to actually burn fat. If you start exercising, and it causes you to A) miss out on significant amounts of sleep, B) it causes you a lot of stress and anxiety and C) it’s causing you to raid the cookie jar at 9pm because you’re ravenous…then you may need to readjust your exercise type and amount to better suit your lifestyle. When our body is under significant outside stress without a chance to recover, our body struggles to lose fat because we’re in our “fight or flight” mode all the time. The hormonal balance when we’re super stressed is all about survival & maintenance, rather than change. Sleep and stress have a huge role in our body composition. It’s a reason we talk about lifestyle, stress relief, and sleep with our members and nutrition clients. 

So to sum it all up: if you’re ONLY concerned with total bodyweight and not with your body composition, then theoretically exercise could prevent your total bodyweight from decreasing as quickly. Or, if your new exercise routine is a huge source of stress, anxiety, and poor food decisions, you might struggle losing body fat.

This is why it’s important to have more than one metric to measure your success with diet & exercise. If the ONLY metric you look at is the weight on the scale, you’re likely putting your focus in the wrong place. Even though you’re working hard in the gym and feeling great, getting stronger, and feeling better in your clothes — if you’re just paying attention to the scale weight, you might still feel disappointed and “stuck.” This is a big reason we invested in an InBody composition scanner to help our clients see their body fat & lean muscle changes over time, not just their total body weight. 

There are lots of ways we can track our health progress. It’s important to have a good mix of objective data and subjective data to help us make good decisions. We can track things like:

  • Body fat
  • Lean muscle
  • Body measurements like waist & thigh circumference  
  • Blood markers like A1C, triglycerides, cholesterol
  • Performance data from your workouts
  • Your sleep duration & quality
  • Subjective measures — how are you feeling? How’s your energy day to day? Do your clothes feel more comfortable? Are you feeling more confident

Overall, the incredible benefits of regular exercise are just too powerful to ignore. The “risk” of somehow harming our ability to lose weight with exercise is quite limited to the specific scenarios we mentioned above. We often see that when our clients start exercising more consistently, they also make better nutrition and lifestyle choices more often. At Ripple Effect, our body composition and performance in the gym are more important than what the scale says. You are more than just the number on the scale! 

Looking to dive deeper into your body composition and get beyond the scale? Contact us today to set up an InBody composition scan!



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