Gym memberships and fitness classes see some pretty intense spikes around this time of the year, and for good reason: most of us are in weight loss mode.
After a season of indulging (and sometimes stressing!), a lot of us have extra incentive to improve our health and shed some extra pounds.
Exercise is definitely one of the cornerstones that people turn to for managing their weight and getting into shape, so we see a lot of people hitting the weights and jumping on the treadmill to make these changes happen.
However, looking at the other side of the equation (aka: diet) is beneficial, especially in the climate we’re in (gym closures, etc …). If we can’t work out as regularly as we’d like, is it possible to lose weight without exercise?
Maybe you don’t have the equipment you’d like to work out, or are dealing with an injury, or simply just don’t enjoy the thought of getting your sweat on, but you would still like to shed a couple of pounds. Is it possible?
How Weight Loss Works
To understand how best to lose weight, you should first have a solid understanding of what weight loss really entails.
Talking about weight loss inevitably means talking about calories – and when we’re talking about calories, what they are really talking about are units of energy. Your body needs a certain amount of energy every day to carry out all its vital functions, from digesting to breathing to thinking to moving! So it’s crucial that you are getting enough calories to give your body enough energy to get all of these things done.
If you eat more calories than your body uses, it stores it as fat. That fat tissue can then be broken down and used for energy in the case of a calorie deficit, which is what happens when you eat fewer calories than you need.
So being at a caloric deficit should be your main goal when looking to lose weight. And the best way to increase your calorie burn? You guessed it: exercise.
Losing Weight with Diet Alone
Exercise is one of the main staples for weight loss because it increases the number of calories you’re using. Running, lifting, and generally moving your body is tough work, so you need more energy (calories!) to make it happen. At a caloric deficit, you aren’t getting enough of that needed energy from the food you’re eating, so your body begins to burn that stored fat in order to utilize the energy.
Here’s the good news: exercise isn’t the only factor for weight loss. In fact, relying on exercise alone for weight loss doesn’t seem to be that effective in a weight loss routine at all. One study found that, unless the exercise is very intense aerobic activity, exercise alone is not likely to contribute to a significant weight loss. [*]
The other main way you can be at a caloric deficit is simple: focus on your calorie intake, rather than the burn. In order to lose about one pound, you need to be at a caloric deficit of approximately 3,000 calories. If you don’t increase your physical activity at all, you need to achieve this deficit strictly through managing your intake – aka your diet.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be exercising for weight loss at all, just that it shouldn’t be the only thing you do for weight loss. Exercise is still an effective way to burn calories: even if your workout only burns a couple hundred calories, those are still calories that can contribute to a deficit when paired with a good eating plan.
It’s All About How You Balance Your Calories.
On the other hand, you need to be paying really close attention to your diet if you aren’t exercising but still want to lose weight. The importance of eating right can’t be understated even if you are working out regularly, so it’s especially important that you follow a solid eating plan when you aren’t adding exercise.
Let’s say you rely on physical activity alone for weight loss. High-intensity interval training, which is generally though to be one of the best kinds of exercise for weight loss because of how it aims to maximize your calorie burn, will burn approximately 560 calories for a 155-pound person. If you do that workout a little more than five times, you’re on track to lose one pound.
The calorie burn from this highly-effective weight loss workout seems like a pretty big number, and if you pair it with a good diet, you’ll be well on your way to reaching your weight loss goals. But on the other hand, if you eat poorly, it’s not that hard to make up that caloric difference and cancel out your progress.
And if you don’t exercise at all and still have that calorie “splurge”, you are that much more likely to be eating at a calorie level best suited for maintenance – or worse, a caloric surplus.
So in short, you can lose weight without exercise, but eating a proper diet at the right calorie level is crucial, and the going might be a little slower. You don’t want to starve yourself by eating way below the number of calories you need, since that can have negative impacts on your health. For a healthy and maintainable rate of weight loss without exercise, you should eat about 500 fewer calories per day.
Benefits of Exercise
At the end of the day, the most effective way to lose weight is with a combination of eating clean and following a workout plan. This way, you can increase your calorie deficit without resorting to extreme methods like eating at a dangerously low-calorie intake to get the same weight loss results.
Ideally, you would want to pair eating at a caloric deficit with a healthy balance of both resistance and endurance training for the best weight loss results. [*]
In addition, you can’t discount the importance of exercise for your health even if you aren’t focusing on weight loss. Consistent exercise can help with:
- Better cardiovascular health
- Improved body composition
- Giving your brain and mental health a boost
And here’s something really interesting: if you want to maintain that weight loss, exercise might be even more important for staying at that healthy weight than your diet! One study exploring effective weight maintenance strategies after weight loss found that exercise was a key component for those who were able to successfully keep their weight off. [*]
So unless you’re okay with gaining back the weight you lose, you’re probably going to be better off getting into the habit of getting some physical activity. You don’t have to go to the gym every day; try walking around your neighborhood or doing some bodyweight circuits from the comfort of your living room instead!
(P.S.: the Durable Athlete App gives you EVERYTHING you need to start and manage a workout plan easily. Check it out here.)
Yes, you can lose weight without exercise. But if you don’t exercise, your weight loss is probably going to be slower, and you won’t be setting yourself up for success with maintaining your weight loss once that part of your journey is said and done.
For the best results, eat clean and train hard!