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Is exercise alone enough to lose a significant amount of weight without changing other lifestyle factors?

October 27, 2022
6 minute read

This blog is the summary of a Podcast where Jono interviewed PHD Candidate Luke Tomlin. 

Individual variability in exercise only weight management programs: 

Amounts of weight loss induced from exercise only interventions vary greatly. Check out some of the work by Mark Hopkins and colleagues from the university of Leeds for more info on why this might be the case (i.e., appetite control, compensatory eating and adaptive thermogenesis):

  1. Blundell, J. E., Gibbons, C., Caudwell, P., Finlayson, G., & Hopkins, M. (2015). Appetite control and energy balance: impact of exercise. Obesity reviews, 16, 67-76.
  2. Hopkins, M., & Blundell, J. E. (2016). Energy balance, body composition, sedentariness, and appetite regulation: pathways to obesity. Clinical Science, 130(18), 1615-1628.

Exercise only vs diet only vs combined behavioral weight management programs 

Technically people can lose weight just through exercise, but this requires high levels of physical activity (more than most people can sustain) and is a pretty inefficient way of going about things if fat-loss or weight loss is the goal. Though there is no debate that exercise is hugely beneficial to our overall health, it typically shouldn’t be the primary driver of weight loss.

A calorie deficit primarily induced through dietary restriction is the first line of attack, then exercise is there to support fat-loss efforts and promote long term weight maintenance. 

Check out the following reviews below for more info: 

  1. Johns, D. J., Hartmann-Boyce, J., Jebb, S. A., Aveyard, P., & Group, B. W. M. R. (2014). Diet or exercise interventions vs combined behavioral weight management programs: a systematic review and meta-analysis of direct comparisons. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 114(10), 1557-1568.
  2. Swift, D. L., McGee, J. E., Earnest, C. P., Carlisle, E., Nygard, M., & Johannsen, N. M. (2018). The effects of exercise and physical activity on weight loss and maintenance. Progress in cardiovascular diseases, 61(2), 206-213.
  3. King, N. A., Hopkins, M., Caudwell, P., Stubbs, R. J., & Blundell, J. E.. (2009). Beneficial effects of exercise: shifting the focus from body weight to other markers of health. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(12), 924–927. 

What forms of exercise are best for fat-loss? 

Resistance training for fat-loss?

Progressive resistance training is our first line of defense in maintaining muscle mass during a calorie deficit. Though weight training alone (i.e., without dietary restriction) will likely do little for overall weight-loss. 

  1. Bellicha, A., Baak, M. A., Battista, F., Beaulieu, K., Blundell, J. E., Busetto, L., Carraça, E. V., Dicker, D., Encantado, J., Ermolao, A., Farpour‐Lambert, N., Pramono, A., Woodward, E., & Oppert, J.. (2021). Effect of exercise training on weight loss, body composition changes, and weight maintenance in adults with overweight or obesity: An overview of 12 systematic reviews and 149 studies. Obesity Reviews, 22(S4). 
  2. Hunter, G. R., Byrne, N. M., Sirikul, B., Fernández, J. R., Zuckerman, P. A., Darnell, B. E., & Gower, B. A.. (2008). Resistance Training Conserves Fat-free Mass and Resting Energy Expenditure Following Weight Loss. Obesity, 16(5), 1045–1051. 

LISS for fat loss?

I typically recommend LISS to most clients as it’s easy to add in (i.e., as an extended warm-up or cool down) and it’s easy to recover from. Further, it can also increase their ability to recover in between sets during their resistance training and/or allow them to push closer to muscular failure without their cardio giving out first. Check out a review below comparing the different types of cardio and their impact on body comp: 

  1. Steele, J., Plotkin, D., Van Every, D., Rosa, A., Zambrano, H., Mendelovits, B., ... & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2021). Slow and steady, or hard and fast? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies comparing body composition changes between interval training and moderate intensity continuous training. Sports, 9(11), 155.

Also, check out this article by Dr. Eric Helms: Cardio For Cutting — How Much You Should Do For Fat Loss

Practical example of working with a new client: 

Start with a low baseline 3-5x per/week (depending on clients abilities) and simply add 5 minutes to each session, each week. Start the next block at a slightly higher point as the client progresses. 

BLOCK 1 Hypertrophy (4 Week Progression Example)

Starting Cals: 2500 @ Starting at 80kg BW 

Week 1 = Easy (Squats 2 x 10 @ 80kg)                     Week 1 = (10 Minutes LISS)

Week 2 = Moderate (Squats 3 x 11 @ 82.5kg)           Week 2 = (15 Minutes LISS)

Week 3 = Moderate/Hard (Squats 3 x 12 @ 82.5kg)  Week 3 = (20 Minutes LISS)

Week 4 = Hard (Squats 4 x 12+ @ 85kg)                   Week 4 =  (25 Minutes LISS) 

New Cals: 2250 Finishing @ 77kg BW

BLOCK 2 Hypertrophy (4 Week Progression Example)

Week 5 = Moderate   (Squats 3 x 12 @ 82.5kg)             Week 5 = (15 Minutes LISS)

Week 6 = Moderate/Hard (Squats 3 x 12 @ 85kg)         Week 6 = (20 minutes LISS)

Week 7 = Moderate/Hard (Squats 4 x 12 @ 85kg)         Week 7 = (25 Minutes LISS)

Week 8 = Hard (Squats 5 x 12 @ 87.5kg)                      Week 9 = (30 Minutes LISS) 

HIIT for fat loss? 

I prefer to use HIIT sparingly. It has the advantage of time efficiency, but it is more likely to directly impact your recovery in the gym. If you use it, I recommend doing it 1-2x per week (alongside LISS) and progressing it like you would in the LISS example above, except increase in 2-minute increments instead of 5-minutes. Overall however, cardio is still unlikely to significantly affect gains unless taken to extremes or if the time at which it’s performed negates your performance in the gym. 

See studies below for more info: 

  1. Steele, J., Plotkin, D., Van Every, D., Rosa, A., Zambrano, H., Mendelovits, B., ... & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2021). Slow and steady, or hard and fast? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies comparing body composition changes between interval training and moderate intensity continuous training. Sports, 9(11), 155.
  2. Schumann, M., Feuerbacher, J. F., Sünkeler, M., Freitag, N., Rønnestad, B. R., Doma, K., & Lundberg, T. R.. (2022). Compatibility of Concurrent Aerobic and Strength Training for Skeletal Muscle Size and Function: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 52(3), 601–612. 

NEAT and Step Counts? 

NEAT and step counts can be low hanging fruits for general populations. Track their current baseline then get them to add 1000-2000 steps per day, each week, until they reach the minimum recommended 10,000 steps. Check out this study for more info: 

  1. Schneider, P. L., Bassett Jr, D. R., Thompson, D. L., Pronk, N. P., & Bielak, K. M. (2006). Effects of a 10,000 steps per day goal in overweight adults. American Journal of Health Promotion, 21(2), 85-89.

TDEE - Rough contributors 

Our non-resting energy expenditure = (EAT(5%) + NEAT(15%)) contributes relatively little (on average) to our total daily energy expenditure. Of course benefits to exercise extend far beyond calories expended, but just acknowledge that exercise should only act as support for weight loss.

Chart, pie chart

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Compendium of Physical Activities: Rough calories burned for common activities

To give you an idea on what kind of activities burn what: 

  1. Ainsworth, B. E., Haskell, W. L., Herrmann, S. D., Meckes, N., Bassett, D. R., Tudor-Locke, C., ... & Leon, A. S. (2011). 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities: a second update of codes and MET values. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 43(8), 1575-1581.

Who succeeds in maintaining their weight loss long term?

Exercise is crucial in long-term weight maintenance and preservation of lean mass. 

See below for more info: 

  1. Elfhag, K., & Rossner, S.. (2005). Who succeeds in maintaining weight loss? A conceptual review of factors associated with weight loss maintenance and weight regain. Obesity Reviews, 6(1), 67–85. 
  2. Varkevisser, R. D. M., Van Stralen, M. M., Kroeze, W., Ket, J. C. F., & Steenhuis, I. H. M. (2019). Determinants of weight loss maintenance: a systematic review. Obesity reviews, 20(2), 171-211.
  3. Spreckley, M., Seidell, J., & Halberstadt, J.. (2021). Perspectives into the experience of successful, substantial long-term weight-loss maintenance: a systematic review. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 16(1), 1862481. 
  4. King, N. A., Hopkins, M., Caudwell, P., Stubbs, R. J., & Blundell, J. E.. (2009). Beneficial effects of exercise: shifting the focus from body weight to other markers of health. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(12), 924–927. 


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