Don’t gauge exercise benefits on weight loss alone

If you start an exercise program, it only seems fair that you should see your hard work reflected in lower numbers on the scale. If it isn’t, don’t despair—or quit exercising. You are still helping your heart, lungs, and every other part of your body.

A study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at the effects of exercise and/or weight loss on cardiovascular health among more than 3,000 men and women who were initially overweight. As I write in the July issue of the Harvard Health Letter, those who exercised consistently and lost weight had the biggest reduction in heart attack risk over six years of follow-up. Exercising without losing weight and losing weight without exercising offered smaller benefits. Not surprisingly, those who didn’t exercise and who gained weight were much more likely to have developed high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and metabolic syndrome, a constellation of factors that increase the likelihood of having a heart attack or stroke.

“I think the findings are encouraging, because they clearly show that among the individuals who gain weight, if you maintain your fitness, you’re at a lower risk compared to those who gain the same amount of weight but don’t maintain fitness,” says Dr. I-Min Lee, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies the health benefits of exercise.

As my colleague Stephanie Watson, executive editor of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, wrote in in a recent blog, physical activity and weight play similar roles in breast cancer: daily physical activity appears to reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, while gaining weight seems to cancel the benefit of this hard work.

Many people find that exercise alone doesn’t lead to weight loss. In fact, working out can build muscle, which may increase the reading on the scale. In addition, exercising can make you very hungry. It’s easy to replace the calories you have burned—and then some.

Fit and fat?

There’s a lively ongoing debate about whether it’s better to be fit and overweight, or sedentary and at a healthy weight. Why not aim for both—being fit and at a healthy weight?

If you take two people who lead sedentary lifestyles, one thin and the other overweight, the thin person has a greater chance of living longer. The same holds if the two people swim a mile a day at the same speed.

Although exercise and weight don’t always move in the same direction, they are both important for health. “Put them together and you optimize your chances of living the healthiest and longest life possible,” says Dr. Thomas Lee, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Co-Editor in Chief of the Harvard Heart Letter.


  1. Dustin

    Quality information provided here. I will be looking forward to my next workout. This article serves as motivation for people that need a little of it in order to keep striving towards their fitness goals. Sometimes we tend to get lazy and quit going to the gym or whichever other form of exercise a person might be involved in. Motivation is the key to success. In any endeavor. Persistence, motivation, and dedication.

  2. Gary Johnson

    Most people who want to get fit and lose weight often worry that they can’t do it. They see healthy folk jogging, pumping weights and rowing furiously, and it puts them off!

    What people really need to do, to get fit and healthy is just commit to making the change from idle to active. A good brisk walk for 30 minutes a day will send you on your way, then move upwards towards, perhaps, hiking.

    Thanks for the article, a logical view as always.

  3. Mike Field-Dodgson

    Fair call – I find there is nothing more frustrating than exercising and not seeing the pounds come off as quickly as we would like.

    I use exercises and weights while jogging on a mini tramp and I can certainly get my pulse rate up and get a good sweat, but my weight drops only very slowly indeed.

    I know that muscle is heavier than fat :-), and my “puff” is great so I know that it is giving a large number of muscles in my body a good workout.

    I think activity is is the key – “If you don’t use it you’ll lose it!

  4. Bilal Hussain

    That’s very true, you cannot just exercise and expect something to magically change in weight if your not eating healthy.

  5. Rebecca

    Hi, there are some really great comments here. I’ve always been interested in health and fitness and have exercised regularly for many years. I’m now in my late 30’s and recently found it a little bit more difficult to stay in shape and have the odd cake or biscuit. I hear many people say that metabolism decreases with age but then my brother told me to watch a programme on BBC2, Horizon. The programme was called Eat, Fast, Live Longer and it was fascinating. Recent research shows that fasting for around 24 hours at a time, a couple of time a week can help you lose weight and live longer. Fasting in this way can be flexible and most people can adapt a fasting programme to suit them and their lives. My husband and I have started this intermittent fasting, it’s working well, we have more energy, we’ve lost weight and it has changed the way we feel about food.

  6. sandro

    Very good blog about health , as many members main thing is not to give up but losing weight is not just not giving up , you need to do everything correctly , i started using protein shakes to lose weight , no big result but it works.
    you can check out blog about protein shakes for weight loss here

  7. Arnel Cardona

    One way of looking at it so that you don’t despair whenever you notice that the weight seems to come off so slowly no matter how hard and often you exercise:

    Long-term health and fitness is your goal when exercising–and the weight loss that will eventually come with it is just one of the most attractive BONUSES that you get for your dedication to exercise!

    Weight loss is largely a matter or lifestyle choices and the right habits developed and adhered to for a long time. If your only motivation for trying to adopt a healthy lifestyle and exercising is so that you can fit into that knockout bathing suit you bought just in time for that summer holiday, then you will be disappointed.

    On the other hand, it is true that there is nothing more motivational than seeing yourself become leaner, more flexible, and a lot more energetic and attractive as you dedicate yourself to exercising. But then again, as the article pointed out, don’t give up on exercise just because it doesn’t seem to be a lot of help shedding those extra pounds for you. IT WILL (eventually)! In the meantime, enjoy all the other VERY IMPORTANT benefits–high level cardiovascular fitness, more energy to engage in various activities, positive outlook on life, less stress, and many more! Thank you. Arnel C

  8. Linda Smith

    If you are exercising regularly but you are over-weight and not losing weight it would suggest your calorie consumption is way too high. Generally if you burn more calories than you eat, you lose weight. Do things that interests you like hip-hop dancing, belly dancing, salsa or even pole dancing!

  9. Jolene Christopherson

    This is great information for subjects looking to justify a reasoning for exercise. For fitness practitioners, it only supports the facts we already know which is encouraging.

    So many people look at exercise and weight loss as a means to simply look good. While it’s true that is a benefit, what really matters are the health benefits, not only physically, but mentally and even emotionally that come with it as well.

    The mere fact that people just simply “feel” better after exercising can attest to that.

    Thanks again for the post.

  10. Easterndrugs

    Exercising is a great tool it makes you feel good mentally, and when you see positive physical changes in your body you feel good about yourself. Beginning is the hard part, but once you start and stay with it, you will notice a big difference in your mentality and outlook on life. – Exercising clears the mind, and soothes the soul. Any exercise is great. Even a workout for 15 minutes is great! – just 15 minutes and you will see a difference. Some researchers say that exercise acts like antidepressants in increasing the activity of serotonin and/or norepinephrine in your brain; working out releases endorphins and other hormones that reduce pain, induce euphoria, have a calming effect, and combat stress.

  11. belly dancing

    Yes, try to inject fun in your workouts and you’ll never dread about exercising again. Do things that interests you like hip-hop dancing, belly dancing, salsa or even pole dancing!

  12. Ashley Brown

    I agree with you , exercise has a lot of benefits apart from weight loss. Exercising helps in controlling diabetes, hypertension, obesity and many other diseases and disorders. Most of the people think that exercise only for those who are overweight. But that is not true. It is for everyone who wants to stay fit and live longer.

  13. Catherine Newton

    Exercise is an important aspect in one’s healthy life. It gives you endurance, fit and wellness.

  14. lance rover

    Health is wealth, as they say. it is indeed, be it mental health or physical health. We should also be concerned about the proper mental development of adults and children alike.

  15. kelly

    I think that it is very important for one not to be so number on scale crazy. I know I to was doing it, see I have in less than two months only loss 16 pounds…and others are losing more doing the same 90 day challenge as me. I was feeling a little frustrated…but than I really took a look at my inches. I was doing them weekly. I looked at my beginning inches and currently and was wowed to see almost 20 inches in my body…chest, waist, hips, legs,etc. I think that this really taught me that while I was not losing as much on the scale…I have been building lean muscle mass and losing more in inches. I have also decided not to compare me to others as I am me and I will lose in the area’s I need to lose. If I focus on others…I am not putting my efforts on me. You need to stick to what your doing and not give up, YOU need to add some activity into your routine that is outside the norm for you. Make sure that you use something like myfitnesspal to keep track of what you are putting into your body and who many calories the food eat really are. Set smaller goals, easier to hit many smaller than to reach for one Huge one that seems like you will never get to. You need to really work on building body and actually lean muscle mass…

  16. Cadrian

    Here is a little fact for you: Laughter is good for your health-and now scientists know why. This means that each one enhances the effects of the other. It is essential to exercises in order to lose the weight in a healthy way, at a healthy speed and also to keep the weight off, making it perfect in the long term. Most high-fiber foods are also rich in water and low in calories, so they should be eating the food. Running and Jogging this is the easiest and healthiest way to lose weight, running and jogging is the exercise which most of the people do. These exercises work the total thigh, hips, and low back.

  17. jaffa

    The health insurance broker to compare plans and costs for you. The National Association of Health Underwriters can help find one in your area. Thanks.

  18. Jenny


    Do you maybe have an answer if exercise on trampoline is good as people say it is?

    I read on blog trampolining itself is 45% better than jogging. Can this be true?

    If yes, are trampoline safe enough or should I stay away from them?

    thx in advance

  19. Chris Gold

    You can’t measure the success of weight loss by how much weight you have lost. You measure your energy level and your eating habits and all of those things. I have done the HCG diet for over a year now and I have lost weight and I feel younger and i am more active. It’s a great feeling!!

  20. Paul F Davis

    Good post Heidi.

    It is worth remembering that muscle weighs more than fat and malnutrition can result in metabolic acidosis resulting in osteoporosis as the body pulls calcium from the bones to remove toxicity and acidity.

    Thus merely losing weight does not always equal health benefits.

  21. Marlin

    I believe that avoiding refined foods is a first step to be able to lose weight. They will taste excellent, but ready-made foods have very little vitamins and minerals, making you feed on more to have enough power to get over the day. If you are constantly feeding on these foods, moving over to grain and other complex carbohydrates will assist you to have more vigor while taking in less. Thanks alot : ) for your blog post.

  22. jaffa

    The muscle hypertrophy from resistance training is primarily determined by diet and testosterone. This genetic variation in improvement from training is one of the key physiological differences between elite athletes and the larger population. Thanks.

  23. wood

    Thru my research, I recommend to at lease do some exercises twice a week. Basically, regular exercise can shed off fat in your body.


  24. Bill Smith

    This is a good article. I’ve found that the best way to reduce fat is by building muscle. I wrote a couple of articles about this.

  25. Mike

    Great information that should be very helpful; to adult exercisers.

  26. Arron B

    Thank you Ms. Godman. It is a good reminder that losing weight by exercising and eating a healthy diet not just give you a more youthful appearance, but it also promotes the healthy functioning of our bodies and takes years off our lives.

  27. Norman Irlandez

    That’s very true.

    Losing weight very logical if you are overweight. It also comes from changing your eating habits. with 20 min a day exercise, it is a good way to start.

  28. Mandy Seay, RD, LD

    Eating a healthy diet is more predictive of weight loss than exercise alone. With that being said, for best results/ optimum health, you’ll need to incorporate both.
    If you do heavy exercise that results in a 600 calorie burn, but then eat a brownie (about 500-600) calories later on – you’ve just negated all of that hard work.
    It has to be a balance.

  29. Anonymous

    If you are exercising regularly but you are over-weight and not losing weight it would suggest your calorie consumption is way too high. Generally if you burn more calories than you eat, you lose weight.

    The interesting thing with exercising is that many people actually up their calorie intake when the start exercising because they overestimate the amount of calories burnt through exercise and think it is ok to have a food treat as they have done the exercise. The result then is – your calorie intake is still higher than the calories burnt during exercise.

  30. Famous Photographers

    Based on my experience, I gained more weight after I stopped going to the gym. But when I do workout again, my weight turns back to normal. Gaining or losing weight really depends on the lifestyle of the person.

  31. Gaspard Dakora

    Indeed possessing a very good weight is very imperative. This is the only way one can always continue to stay healthy. this is really an informative article. Please keep it up.

  32. Armando Ribeiro das Neves Neto

    A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Chinese proverb. The Lifestyle Medicine should emphasize the small initial gains that will make the final victory. Physicians are key partners in the direction of change of lifestyle and should receive more training in lifestyle coaching. Armando Ribeiro das Neves Neto. Sao Paulo – Brazil.

  33. Jessica Staheli

    I always thought it was everyone’s goal to be at a healthy weight and be fit?

    • Mike

      You’re probably right. The message here is that people shouldn’t get too hung up on their weight. Don’t give up if it’s your goal, just know that it’s more important to be fit, than light.

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