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Why You Can't Lose Weight in the Gym

If you’ve found yourself struggling to lose weight despite exercising regularly, you’re not alone. Emerging research is demonstrating that we might not actually be burning as many calories as we think. Maybe even only 72 calories for every expected 100.


Researchers are blaming this phenomenon on something called “calorie compensation.” But calorie compensation isn’t the only thing that’s stopping you from losing weight. In this blog, we’ll break down why exercise isn’t the only piece to the weight loss puzzle.

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What is calorie compensation?


Calorie compensation is used to describe a number of physical and physiological processes that your body can employ to prevent weight loss. Examples of calorie compensation include:

  • Consuming more calories because exercise stimulates the appetite

  • Less physical movement throughout the day because working out makes you tired

  • Reduction of daily expenditure on other components, like resting metabolism

What does the research say?


The term gained traction in 2012, with the publication of a study that followed a group of African hunter-gatherers. Researchers found that even though the tribespeople lived an incredibly active lifestyle, jogging and walking for hours, they only burned relatively the same amount of calories per day as Western men and women. These findings obviously directly contradict the common belief that exercise will boost daily calorie expenditure and result in weight loss. The researchers found that the bodies of the tribespeople were compensating, reducing overall calorie burning to avoid starvation as they hunted their food.


An August 2021 study brought new attention to the phenomenon. The study explored how physical activity affects our metabolism. The study followed 1,754 adults and measured their total body composition and basal energy expenditure. The researchers could then tally if people burn more total daily calories when they move more throughout the day. And what they found was that most people only burned around 72% as many extra calories, on average, as expected from their activity levels.


The researchers also found that calorie compensation increased as body fat increased. Participants with relatively high levels of body fat compensated for 50% OR MORE of the calories they burned from being active. In practice, this means that if you work out for an hour and your FitBit reports 600 calories burned, your body will compensate for 300 of those hard lost calories, resulting in only around 300 total lost. The researchers saw similar calorie compensation in older adults in the study.


Importantly, this study did not examine food intake. Rather, it only focused solely on energy outlay and how our bodies decreased calorie expenditure by reducing biological activity elsewhere in the body. The researchers speculate the immune system functions, which typically require a great deal of energy, may get “dialed down.” This would reduce our overall energy expenditure.


Other things stopping you from losing weight:


Exercise only counts for a very small portion of daily calorie expenditure.


Exercise really only accounts for 10-30% of total daily energy expenditure depending on the person. Energy expenditure is mainly based on three components:

  • Basal metabolic rate (the energy used for basic bodily functions)

  • Energy used to break down food

  • Energy used in physical activity

Our basal metabolic rate is the energy your body expends supporting the functions of organs and physiological systems. The liver, brain, and skeletal muscle burn the most calories when your body is at rest. This is largely dependent on your age, sex, body weight, and fat-free mass. You really cannot control your BMR, the only factor you can regulate is your fat-free mass. BMR accounts for 60-80% of total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).


Digesting food typically accounts for only 10% of total energy expenditure. This leaves only 10-30% for exercise.


Exercise alone is nearly useless for weight loss.


While exercise has many, many undeniable benefits (including a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart attack, Alzheimer’s, and dementia), most research examining the effects of exercise on weight loss tell a very different story. A 2001 review of exercise intervention studies found that after 20 weeks, “the amount of exercise energy expenditure had no correlation with weight loss in these longer studies.” The majority of participants in these studies only lost a couple of pounds at best, even in highly controlled experiments where their diets were kept constant.


Other meta-analyses of studies that examined exercise have come to similar conclusions about the effects of exercise on weight loss. The Cochrane Review of all the best available studies on exercise for weight loss reported that physical activity alone only led to “modest reductions.” A 1999 review found similar findings.


Obesity researcher David Allison sums up the research in this way: Adding physical activity to your daily routine has a very modest effect on weight loss- “a lesser effect than you’d mathematically predict.”


Exercise can lead to unhealthy decisions.


A grueling workout can cause you to feel more hungry throughout the day. A 2009 study found that people increase their food intake after exercise. This is due to because they believed they deserved it after a workout or were left hungry. Another 2012 review of studies demonstrated that people generally eat more after working out.


Some research also suggests that some people move much less after a workout. Working out in the morning can lead to taking the bus to work instead of walking or ordering food for delivery instead of walking to get it.


These unconscious changes are known as “compensatory behaviors.They encompass the adjustments we subconsciously make after working out that will offset the calories we actually burned.


Significant calorie deficits are hard to create with only exercise:


The well-known 3,500-calorie rule (supposing that one pound is lost for every 3,500 calories lost) is actually an unrealistic way to go about losing weight. The National Institute of Health created the “Body Weight Planner”, which offers a much more pragmatic way to approach weight loss. This model was created to demonstrate why incorporating regular exercise is unlikely to result in significant weight loss.


The Body Weight Planner will allow you to make personalized calorie and physical activity plans to attain a weight loss goal and to maintain it after. For example, if a 200-pound man added 60 minutes of running at a medium-intensity four days a week while maintaining the same calorie intake, he will lose 5 pounds in 30 days. If the man decided to decrease daily movement outside of running or increase food intake, even less weight will be lost. The Body Weight Planner offers a realistic version of long-term weight loss plans, and demonstrates how insignificant the role of exercise is.


The benefits of exercise may have an upper limit.


Some researchers have begun to demonstrate that weight loss is hard to achieve through exercise alone because, at a certain point, you will experience an energy expenditure plateau.


One study recruited 332 adults from all over the world and classified them into three types: the sedentary, the moderately active (workouts 2-3 times per week), and the super active (workouts nearly every day). In this study, physical activity only accounted for 7-9% of calorie variation between the three groups. The moderately active group burned around 200 more calories than the sedentary people per day. But above that, there was very little difference between the moderate and super active groups.


The researchers found that total energy expenditure was dependant on physical activity, but the relationship was much stronger in the lower range of activity. This suggests a plateau in total energy expenditure- after a certain rate, calorie-burning will slow.


While this concept is still only a hypothesis, it offers a very interesting and opposing argument against the traditional view of exercise and weight loss.


So what should you actually do to lose weight?


Research from the National Weight Control Registry offers very valuable insight into what actually works for weight loss on the individual level. The Registry is currently running a study with over 10,000 participants that examines the traits, habits, and behaviors of adults who have managed to lose at least 30 pounds and have kept it off for at least 1 year.


The researchers found that people who have successfully lost weight have several things in common:

  1. They weigh themselves at least once per week.

  2. They stay away from high-fat foods, watch portion sizes, and restrict their calorie intake.


While yes, the successful participants do exercise regularly, they also supplement with other behavioral changes. Most weight-loss experts report that the most valuable tool in losing and keeping off weight is calorie limitation that is sustainable and healthy. In general, adding exercise to your routine can work better than just cutting calories, but only with marginal additional benefits for weight loss. The chart below demonstrates results from a trial done with overweight participants, the group that restricted calories lost nearly the same amount of weight as the group that both exercised and dieted.


But choosing a calorie-restricting diet can be difficult. Do you go keto? Or maybe try Paleo or a low-carb diet? Dr. Johnson firmly believes that the best way to lose weight and optimize your health is through a nutrigenomic diet.


Many studies have proven the long-lasting benefits and superiority of the nutrigenomic diet when compared to other types of diets. The nutrigenomic diet has the long-standing power to allow for a slow, gradual progression of weight loss and overall health improvements.


Nutrigenomics is the only dietary plan that will precisely identify the patterns and imbalances of your unique metabolism and use nutrients to suppress the expression of disease, illness, and other unhealthy patterns. Nutrigenomics informs us which nutrients and foods will influence our genes toward health and protect our DNA from damage.


For example, we all know that inflammation can lead to chronic diseases but you may not know that there are many different genes that regulate specific inflammatory pathways. Knowing your DNA blueprint will allow us to target these pathways with specific foods that will reduce inflammation and decrease your risk of chronic disease.


Your genetics also determine how you respond to nutrients. This is why the “one size fits all” diet does not work. Your individual genetic make-up may predispose you to a particular disease process that may be prevented by personalized nutrition.


If you're interested in weight loss or genomic testing at the Johnson Center, click here to learn more! Or contact us or email our office at johnsoncenter.inquiry@gmail.com.


The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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