Benefits of Exercise

Does Exercise Make You Fat?

We've uncovered the truth about how your workout affects your metabolism, appetite, weight, and overall health


Image: Ian Allen

While you were toiling away on the treadmill, a slow-burning debate among fitness experts was catching fire: Is exercise an effective strategy for losing weight? Or is the effort ultimately a wash, triggering hunger pangs that make you replace everything you burned and then some? A decade ago no one thought to ask this. Too much food makes you fat. Exercise burns calories. Ergo, exercise makes you less fat. Then research began to find that not everyone who exercises loses weight. Impossible as it may seem, some people actually gain a pound or two.

The problem: The range of individual responses to exercise is huge, says veteran weight-loss researcher Timothy Church, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of preventive medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "We don't understand all of it," he says. Fortunately, however, we understand enough to throw cold water on four of today's most insidious weight-loss myths.

The Secret to Shedding Weight Fast

MYTH 1: Exercise won't help you lose weight

That would be news to all the people who've lost double-digit poundage by pounding the pavement. But it would seem to validate the experience of your buddy who trained for a marathon and finished 2 pounds heavier. Dr. Church explains: "The degree to which you respond is probably dependent on genetics. Researchers have found 20 specific genes related to this, and how you score across those genes impacts your responsiveness." Your diet and the kind of exercise you engage in may play a role too. For most of us, the response is in the middle. Exercise, in fact, helps out in three specific belly-off zones.

Limiting weight gain—"A ton of data shows that leading a physically active life is critical for not putting on weight," says Dr. Church. Beyond the obvious calorie-burning rewards, regular exercisers become more attuned to their body's needs, reap mental benefits, and have a better quality of life, research shows. Regular workouts also help you maintain better body composition (more muscle, less fat), which means a lower risk of chronic diseases.

 (Search: How does exercise prevent disease?)

Losing weight—A recent Cochrane Collaboration review of 43 exercise and weight-loss studies determined that exercise helped people lose some weight—about 2 pounds. Crank up the intensity to "high" and you can lose 3 pounds—without dietary intervention. Our suggestion: Speed Shred, the new high-intensity follow-along DVD series from Men's Health.

Preventing the pounds from coming back—Losing weight isn't easy, but keeping it off is even harder, Dr. Church says. Your metabolism downshifts, and hormonal processes kick in to encourage your body to regain those pounds. The latest data from the National Weight Control Registry shows that people who successfully keep pounds off exercise for 45 to 60 minutes a day. And as long as you're not taking in more calories than you burn, daily exercise may remodel your metabolism, so your body burns more fat.

Fat blaster Intensity trumps all. You not only burn more calories while you're working out but also help your metabolism stay in a higher gear for hours afterward, thanks to a mechanism called EPOC, or excess postexercise oxygen consumption. In a recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, men who cycled hard for 45 minutes burned an average of 519 calories during the workout and another 193 calories in the next 14 hours. The tipping-point intensity level seems to be about 75 percent to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate (which is roughly 220 minus your age).

 (Video: 5 Exercises for a Hot Body)

MYTH 2: Exercise just makes you hungrier

Doesn't happen, at least in the short term, says David Stensel, Ph.D., who studies exercise metabolism at Loughborough University in England. In Stensel's 2010 study, people who exercised for 90 minutes ate just as many calories on the days they worked out as on the days they didn't. Numerous other studies have shown that vigorous exercise briefly down-regulates the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin. And while the blood levels of ghrelin rebound quickly after exercise, Stensel says they don't rise beyond where they were before the activity.

Over the long term, however, your body reacts to a serious fitness program as it would to any sustained reduction of its available fuel stores. No matter how much you want that 32-inch waist, your body wants homeostasis more. The degree to which appetite amps up varies among individuals and depends on a combination of genetic, behavioral, and contextual factors, says Barry Braun, Ph.D., an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "It's complex, because in most studies we see a poor correspondence between appetite hormones and changes in perceived hunger," he says. And there's no clear link between appetite and what people actually eat. (Part of the solution? Choosing the right foods, like you will in this plan: Eat More Food, Lose More Weight.)

Fat blaster Increasing your incidental activity—calories you burn when you're not working out—always pays dividends, says Men's Health nutrition advisor Alan Aragon, M.S. For instance, a study from the University of Missouri found that active nonexercisers burned more calories than people who ran 35 miles a week but were otherwise sedentary. And one of Braun's recent studies shows that standing instead of sitting can burn an extra 750 calories a day without triggering an appetite increase. But don't leave it up to chance: Get an activity recorder, such as Actiheart or Fitbit, and try to boost your numbers in whatever way you can.

MYTH 3: You can "reward" yourself for working out

Okay, you can, but you shouldn't—at least not with food. The reason is simple: A few seconds of indulgence can undo an hour's worth of exercise. Let's say you run for 40 minutes at a 9-minute-mile pace. That's a good workout, burning about 550 calories. Now suppose you grab a Starbucks Venti Mocha Frappuccino on the way to work. That's 500 calories—almost what you just sweated off.

Dr. Church is now studying dieters who exercise and either gain weight or don't lose as many pounds as they'd expected to. Why? Because they tend to treat themselves with high-calorie foods after workouts. "The problem is, the reward is disproportionate to the activity," he says.


In a 2010 University of Ottawa study, 16 normal-weight people walked on treadmills until they had burned 300 calories. Then they had to estimate how much energy they'd expended. Some guessed 896—almost triple the actual burn. An hour later, they were told to eat a meal that, in their estimation, would replace the calories they'd burned. This group selected 607 calories—double the energy they'd used.

But there's some good news: Emerging evidence suggests that exercise can help rewire your brain in a way that makes you less likely to seek out indulgent foods. In a study published this year, researchers at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, asked two groups to either sit quietly or pedal hard on a stationary bike for an hour. When the time was up, the scientists wired them up to measure brain activity and showed them pictures of either high-calorie foods or healthy fare. The people who had exercised showed no preference for any particular category of food. But when the non-exercisers saw images of cookies and sundaes, the reward regions of their brains lit up. "Being fit can have psychological effects," says Todd Hagobian, Ph.D., the study's author and an assistant professor of kinesiology at Cal Poly. "Regular exercise may increase your desire to consume a better diet—and shed pounds." (You don't have to give up treats entirely. Just stick to good choices like these 15 Dessert Swaps for Weight Loss.)

Fat blaster First, find an exercise you enjoy; that way doing it becomes the reward. Second, keep a closer eye on the calories you burn exercising. (For most activities, it's under 400 for every 45 minutes; you can check at myfitnesspal.com.) Finally, track portion sizes. You could be in for a shock.

Another key strategy is learning how to fill up on less. Weight loss requires an energy deficit (burning more than you take in), and anytime you're managing a deficit, your body will notice. You can't count on self-discipline alone. To win the hunger game, you need to eat foods that fill you up with the fewest calories, says Aragon. Those tend to be foods packed with protein and/or fiber. He advises consuming 30 to 40 grams of protein at every meal (and snack) and hitting your daily fiber quota of 35 grams by eating plenty of beans, oatmeal, fruits, and cruciferous vegetables. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine associated three foods—yogurt, nuts, and fruit—with successful weight loss. Yogurt and nuts offer protein; fruit satisfies your sweet tooth while providing fiber and water. Most fruits have a lot of water, which lowers their energy density—the number of calories per unit of mass. Low-calorie soups have the same effect; the extra fluid helps you feel full with less total food. You can also create the effect by drinking a glass of water before every meal and snack and sipping another one while you're nibbling.

MYTH 4: As a society, we're exercising more but still growing fatter

This is a phony correlation on two levels. First, it suggests that people who exercise consistently are also gaining weight. There's no evidence of that happening. Then it assumes that more people are actually working out. Research flat-out refutes this idea. The peak years of the obesity epidemic—when the average weight of Americans rose by double digits—were roughly 1980 to 2000. In 1980, about 8 percent of men exercised five times a week, according to University of Minnesota research. In 2000, that increased to 9 percent.

But there was one important change: The number of people who said they sat for more than half the day increased by 14 percent. To explore this, Dr. Church and his colleagues at Pennington examined how much physical activity people engaged in at their jobs in the 1960s and in 2008. They found a 58 percent decline in work-related physical activity, with men burning 140 fewer calories a day. "Background physical activity has plummeted," Dr. Church says. "You have to make up for that somewhere. If you don't, you're going to gain weight." (Is you desk chair killing you? Find out in our special report, Sentenced to the Chair.)

Fat blaster All movement matters. Even a simple evening walk can make up for the calories we no longer burn at work.

When we focus on what exercise doesn't do, we miss a bigger story that goes beyond appetite and even weight control. Exercise pays off in ways that can't be measured on a scale or seen in a mirror. A 2011 study published in the journal Circulation found that the fitter you are, the lower your chance of having a heart attack or of premature death from any cause, regardless of your girth.

Other research reveals that even when dieters regain lost weight, they still come out ahead by maintaining their workout routines. A 2010 study from the University of Missouri shows that the still-exercising dieters were healthier than a matched group of people who'd regained weight but stopped working out. The exercising group had higher levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, greater insulin sensitivity, and lower blood pressure.

It's also worth noting that your own workout routine isn't part of a controlled scientific experiment. What you take out of it has a high correlation with what you're willing to put into it and how consistently you adhere to it. And that's no myth.

Want more fat-incinerating plans? Try one of these 3 Tough Cardio Workouts.