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Does Exercise Help With Weight Loss?

This morning, I debated the award-winning US science journalist Gary Taubes on the CBC Sunday TV News about one of the central theses of his new book (Good Calories, Bad Calories) where he challenges the widely held view that exercise is the best way to lose weight.

Actually, Gary and I did not have much of a debate around this issue, as for years I have been telling my obese patients that exercise ALONE will seldom do it for them – weight loss requires negative energy balance, which is hard to achieve without also restricting caloric intake (we did not get into the discussion about which calories to restrict – another interesting discussion altogether).

The normal response to exercise is hunger, which if you respond to, essentially restores your energy balance back to “normal” – so don’t expect to lose weight.

Now of course, this should not be taken as an excuse to stay on the couch – the benefits of a physically active lifestyle are manifold:

  • improved insulin sensitivity
  • less intra-abdominal (bad) fat
  • less stress
  • cardiovascular fitness
  • better coordination and balance
  • less osteoporosis
  • less dementia
  • etc, etc, etc.

Just don’t expect to see massive (or even any) weight loss – you are more likely to see inches disappear from your waist (as abdominal fat is replaced by muscle and perhaps some subcutaneous fat) but the numbers on the scale will not change – will you be healthier? Most likely!

By the way, although exercise may not be the best way to lose weight – people who are more active are more likely to keep the weight off – and after all, that’s what obesity treatment is all about – if you can’t keep it off, why lose it at all?

Better still to be as physically active as you possibly can and not gain the excess weight in the first place (yes, I know that there are many active people who still put on weight – but just imagine where they would be without that activity?)



  1. So, when will the discussion on which calories to restrict happen? I’d be very interested in that one, having read Taubes’ book, and a recent documentary on dietary modifications in Alert Bay, in which people adopted a high protein traditional aboriginal diet.

    On another issue, I have lost 55 lbs over a year and a half, and maintained (plus/minus 5 lbs) for 8 months. I’m at 21.5% body fat (by 3 point caliper measurement), a BMI of 27 (must be all the muscle!) but have a stubborn store of belly fat and am looking for a way to lose the last 10-15 lbs. I’m 43, and wondering about pre-menopause, progesterone levels, and whether there’s anything I need to consider regarding hormone levels and abdominal fat deposition.

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  2. i love Gary Taubes, he absolutely ripped the lipid hypothesis to shreds and humiliated all those who had preached it as dogma. id consider Good Calories, Bad Calories a must-read for anybody who has ever heard the phrases “restrict saturated fat intake” or “cholesterol causes heart disease”

    i agree that the majority of weight loss comes from diet, but exercise is still essential. for one, the improved insulin sensitivity is very significant. more importantly, however, lifting heavy weights is the only way to preserve muscle mass. even if two people lose the same amount of weight, if one of them lifted heavy weights and the other didn’t, the one who lifts weights will be the one to lose more fat

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