Over the years, I have received so many emails from readers who are struggling to lose weight, and one common complaint is focused on exercise. Sometimes they say they don’t have time and other times they just feel like they can’t commit to a lifestyle that includes the daily grind of exercising. So often, the guilt from “failing” at the exercise portion of their weight loss makes them give up completely and revert to all their old bad habits. To this I say: exercise is great for so many reasons, but you don’t have to hit the gym constantly to lose weight—and you don’t have to do it just to start living a healthier life. It’s OK to start slow. It’s OK to make changes to your diet first, if that’s more manageable.
From a very young age, it gets drilled into us that the way to lose weight is through diet and exercise. And while this is technically true—weight loss is a function of how much energy you expend vs how much energy you consume—the importance of exercise remains an overstated part of the general advice.
Your body needs energy to function and it burns a certain number of calories just to keep you alive. It will use more or less depending on your size and activity level. If your body uses more energy than you consume in a day, it will break down fat (and some lean body mass) for additional energy, and that’s how you end up losing weight. An average woman will burn between 1800 and 2000 calories a day without any formal exercise. Of course, this varies a lot from person to person depending on factors like height and weight, if you’re interested in finding your own number, you can look up an online calculator. Adding additional exercise to your day (a jog, long walk, spin class, Zumba…) will increase your calories burned, but not by as much as you might think. A half hour of strenuous exercise probably only burns a few hundred calories—which isn’t all that much when you compare it to the calories in so many of the foods we eat.
The best way to create a caloric deficit, if you’re looking to lose weight, is by focusing on your diet. Cutting out higher calorie foods and beverages and replacing them with lower calorie options will quickly add up to several hundred—and sometimes thousands of—calories.
Now, obviously exercise isn’t useless. It’s a critical aspect of overall health and will make you look and feel much better, too. I think everyone should find a type of exercise they enjoy and be as active as possible. But if you miss a few days at the gym, or you’re going through a tough time with motivation to exercise, you don’t have to give up. You can still make progress!