Everybody wants a “beach body.” Getting one is a popular goal for Americans each year. So, how do you make it happen, and once you have it, how do you maintain it? Is it time to hit the gym and work out for a few hours? Not necessarily. We’re beginning to realize the common idea that the best way to lose weight is at the gym isn’t quite true.

Why Exercise Alone Doesn’t Cut It

Among many experts, the popular weight loss theory is that it’s 80 percent diet and 20 percent exercise. That’s right. Only about 20 percent of your weight loss comes from working out. Why is this the case? You went for a 30-minute jog. That must have burned off the burger and soda you had earlier… right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. We tend to underestimate our caloric intake and overestimate how many calories we burn. We’re not purposefully deluding ourselves, either. We’re just not that great at estimating these figures.

You actually don’t burn as many calories as you might think through exercise. That jog that we mentioned earlier only burned between 180 to 266 calories. For comparison, a single McDonald’s hamburger is 250 calories and a large Coke is 290 calories. To balance that out through exercise alone, you’d need to run a bit longer! But that wouldn’t work.

Researchers have found that at a certain point, the calories burned through exercise plateaus. Over time, our bodies adapt to working out. That means the number of calories you burn exercising eventually bottoms out, and you won’t see the same return.

The number of calories you burn exercising eventually bottoms out, and you won’t see the same return.

Additionally, there’s the theory that “working up an appetite” is a real phenomenon. That’s right, exercise could make you hungrier. Exercise can curb some hunger, but after an hour, your body signals to replace the calories you burned. Paired with this is the desire to reward yourself for exercising. Between the hunger and the reward, it’s easy to undo all the good work you put in.

Why Tying Weight Loss to Exercise Is Bad

Shows like The Biggest Loser make it appear that with enough exercise, you can lose a lot of pounds fast. Research shows that that is just not true. In fact, many of the Biggest Loser contestants who participated in one study gained the weight back six years after they were on the show.

Furthermore, a 2007 study asked around 200 men and women to work out an average of 5.5 hours a week. That’s more than double the recommended amount of weekly exercise. After a year, the men had lost an average of only 3.5 pounds, while the women fared even worse, with 2.6 pounds lost on average. That’s an average of 286 hours of exercise per person for very little weight loss.

When regular exercise doesn’t help shed as many pounds as people think it should, it’s no wonder they get discouraged.

Why You Should Start in the Kitchen

Ultimately, whether or not you lower the number you see on the scale comes down to watching what you eat.

To lose weight, you must simply burn more calories than you consume. By monitoring what you eat, you can reduce your caloric intake and consume more nutrient-rich foods.

The old equation for losing weight tells us that a pound of fat is equal to about 3,500 calories. Going off that, to lose one pound of a fat a week, you’d need to burn 3,500 calories more than you eat. While the 3,500 count has been arguably debunked, it’s still a good goal to aim for. The point is to track your diet and cut unnecessary calories.

Weight Loss Tips

  1. Cook your meals — By cooking your own meals, you can control what you eat and what goes into your body.
  2. Count your calories — If you’re aware of how many calories you’re taking in, you’ll know where you stand with your goals.
  3. Make healthy foods easy to access — The easier you make it to access healthy foods, the easier it is to snack on them.
  4. Don’t buy unhealthy snacks — It might help you stick to your diet if you don’t have the temptation of unhealthy snacks in your house.
  5. Exercise — Even if it’s not the most effective way to shed pounds, it still helps keep you healthy!

● ● ●

It may seem discouraging to change the way you eat, especially if it means giving up some of the foods you love. But if weight loss is your goal, the kitchen is the best place to start. Exercise on its own can only get you so far. By finding the right diet for you and combining it with a healthier lifestyle, you’ll be well on your way towards achieving your goals.

Further Reading

Dietrend — Fat Loss Starts in the Kitchen
Lifehacker — “You Lose Weight in the Kitchen, You Gain Health in the Gym”
The New York Times — To Lose Weight, Eating Less is Far More Important Than Exercising More