How To Lose Weight Alone: It’s not easy to lose weight. But when you commit to the process, you discover that you can do it by yourself. I discovered that committing to exercise programs on my own helped me get into the habit of exercising regularly. You’d be surprised how easy it can be if you’re committed.
The 6 Weight-Loss Tips That Science Actually Knows Work
Some of the weight loss articles out there these days are getting a little nutty. New scientific studies that shed light on how metabolism works are wonderful and valuable in their own right, but when findings get morphed into magical new “tips” for losing weight, something’s amiss. Some recent pieces in prestigious journals, which have sought to dispel the myths of weight loss and of the individual diets themselves, suggest that the medical community is also getting tired of the hype and the unfounded assumptions that permeate the public discussion.
When it comes down to it, the things we know to be true about weight loss are relatively simple, and certainly few. They’re also extremely effective when actually carried out. So, from the researchers who have studied this stuff for decades, here’s pretty much everything we know about weight loss today, whittled down to six points about how the body actually gains, loses, and maintains its weight.
(Photo credit: Wolfgang Wildner)
1. Dieting trumps exercising
We hear a lot that a little exercise is the key to weight loss – that taking the stairs instead of the elevator will make a difference, for instance. But in fact it’s much more efficient to cut calories, says Samuel Klein, MD at Washington University’s School of Medicine. “Decreasing food intake is much more effective than increasing physical activity to achieve weight loss. If you want to achieve a 300 kcal energy deficit you can run in the park for 3 miles or not eat 2 ounces of potato chips.” It’s as simple as that. Some studies have borne out this dichotomy, pitting exercise against diet and finding that participants tend to lose more weight by dieting alone than by exercise alone. Of course, both together would be even better.
The problem is that when you rely on exercise alone, it often backfires, for a couple of reasons. This is partly because of exercise’s effects on the hunger and appetite hormones, which make you feel noticeably hungrier after exercise. “If you walk briskly for an hour and burn 400 kcal,” says Klein, “and then have a beer and a slice of pizza afterwards because the exercise made you feel hungry…you will eat more calories than you have burned.” It may not always be beer and pizza, but people do tend to naturally compensate for the calories they expend.
“This is an adaptive system,” adds David Allison, PhD. “For every action there’s a reaction; that’s a law of physics, not of biology, but it seems that it also works in biological systems. This is why we often overestimate quite radically an effect of a particular treatment.” He points out that public health campaigns that, for example, urge people to take the stairs instead of the elevator or go on a nightly stroll – or, for that matter, even eat fewer calories – are unlikely to work, since they may fail to take into account the body’s compensatory mechanisms that can totally counteract the effect.
The other problem with exercise-without-dieting is that it’s simply tiring, and again, the body will compensate. “If the exercise made you tired so that you become more sedentary the rest of the day, you might not experience any net negative energy,” says Klein. Some of the calories we burn come from our basic movements throughout the day – so if you’re wiped out after exercise, and more likely to sit on the couch afterwards, you’ve lost the energy deficit you gained from your jog.
2. Exercise can help fix a “broken” metabolism, especially during maintenance
“People used to come into the doctor’s office and say, ‘My metabolism is broken!’” says James Hill, PhD, at the University of Colorado. “We never had any evidence that it actually was, until recently. We were wrong – it was!” While exercise may not be as important for weigh loss as calorie restriction, as Hill says, it’s important in another way: It begins to repair a broken metabolism.
“A lot of what we know in this area comes from NASA, of the bed-rest studies,” he says. “Within a couple of days of non-activity, the metabolism becomes inflexible. You start moving again, and it does start to change.” Your metabolism may not ever go back to “normal” (more on this below), but the evidence indicates that it can indeed pick up again, in large part through moving your body every day.
This is a large part of why exercise is critical in the maintenance phase, which is well known to be more difficult than the weight loss phase. Essentially, it buys us some wiggle room, says Michael Jensen, MD at the Mayo Clinic. “Exercise is very, very important for maintaining lost weight, and people who are not physically active are more likely to gain weight. We think it’s partly because in the extra calories burned from physical activity, you have a bit more flexibility in food intake, so you’re not so much relying on ridged changes in eating habits; it makes it more tolerable.”
3. You’re going to have to work harder than other people – possibly forever
Though exercise can help correct a metabolism that’s been out of whack for a long time, the grisly reality is that it may not ever go back to what it was before you gained weight. So if you’ve been overweight or obese and you lose weight, maintaining that loss means you’re probably going to have to work harder than other people, maybe for good. “The sad thing,” says Hill, “is that once you’ve been obese or not moving for some time, it takes a little more exercise to maintain. It doesn’t come back to normal.” It’s not a pretty reality to face, but coming to grips with it is important, he says, so that you won’t get frustrated when you discover that you have to do more work over the long term than your friend who was never overweight.
Building muscle can help your body burn a few more calories throughout the day, but it’s also likely that you’ll have to work harder aerobically in the long run. “It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is,” adds Hill. “Once you understand it, though, you know it and it’s better. Because you can work with it.”
4. There’s no magical combination of foods
We often think that if we can just discover the “right” combination of foods, we’ll magically lose weight or maintain what we’ve lost. There are low-fat diets, low-carb diets, low glycemic diets, Paleo diets, and a lot of iterations of all of these. Jensen points out that in fact there doesn’t seem to be any “right” diet, and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that one particular diet will work better with an individual’s specific metabolism. “The big myth out there,” he says, “is that there’s a magical combination of foods – be it protein, vegetarian, and what have you – that’s going to be unique because of its unique interaction with your metabolism. We know pretty much that any diet will help you lose weight if you follow it. There’s no magic diet. The truth is that ALL Diets will work if you follow them.”
5. A calorie IS a calorie!
And for energy balance, it’s the number of calories that matters. Weight loss on the Twinkie Diet proves this principle: Last year, Mark Haub at Kansas State University lost 27 pounds eating junk food. And this is pretty good proof of concept, says Yale University’s David Katz, MD, who has written extensively on the futility of the “is a calorie a calorie?” debate.
It’s certainly true – at least in theory and sometimes in practice – that all calories are created equal. “From the standpoint of body weight,” adds Marion Nestle, PhD, of NYU, “a calorie is a calorie no matter what it comes from. You can gain weight eating too much healthy food as well as unhealthy. From the standpoint of health, it’s better to eat your veggies…. It’s just a lot easier to overeat calories from junk food than healthy food. But it can be done.”
But the source of calories obviously matters for other reasons. One, says Katz, is that “the quality of calories is a major determinant of the quantity we ingest under real world conditions.” First of all, no one overeats veggies, so on a practical level, that’s a non-issue. “But where the calories come from does matter in that they influence satiety,” he adds, and this is partly psychology and partly biology. In fact, the food industry has carved out a whole new area of food science to study the “bliss point,” in which foods are created to increase the amount it takes to feel satiated and full. On one hand, says Katz, “we have the ‘bliss point’ science to tell us that the food industry can process foods to increase the calories it takes to reach satisfaction. We have the reciprocal body of work, including the Harvard study of the ONQI, showing that ‘more nutritious’ means, among other things, the opportunity to fill up on fewer calories.”
It’s true that types of foods you eat may, over time, affect your metabolic profile, so they may also matter in this way, but when it boils down, sticking to any reduced-calorie diet will create the energy deficit needed to lose weight. So the point is not to question what a calorie is, but rather to understand that we need to “trade up” our foods, says Katz – exchange the very dense, calorie-packed foods for foods that are less calorie-dense and more nutritionally dense: these are the ones that are bulkier, less energetically rich, have more or higher quality protein, are lower on the glycemic index, and more fibrous.
6. It’s all about the brain
As my colleagues have reported (here and here), when it comes down to it, it’s not the body or the metabolism that are actually creating overweight or obesity – it’s the brain. We all know intuitively that poor decisions are what make you gain weight and better ones are what make you lose it. The problem is that over time, the poor decisions lead to significant changes in how the brain governs – and, amazingly, responds to – the hunger and satiation processes. Years of any kind of behavior pattern lay down neural tracks, and overeating is no exception.
The good news is that there’s increasing evidence that the brain can, in large part, “fix” itself once new behavior patterns emerge (i.e., calorie restriction, healthy food choices, and exercise). While there may be some degree of “damage” to the brain, particularly in how hunger and satiety hormones function, it can correct itself to a large degree over time. The key is that the process does take time, and like any other behavior change, is ultimately a practice. “We want to change behavior here,” says Hill. “Anyone that tells you it’s going to happen in 12 weeks, that’s bogus. We’re trying to rewire the brain. Neurobiology has told us so much about what’s going on in weight gain and weight loss. It takes a long time to develop new habits, rituals, routines. This takes months and years. But it will happen.”
* * *
So boiling it down even further: reduce calories, eat better, exercise, and most of all, remember it is a practice that has to be repeated over time – months or years. The fact that you’ll have to work harder at maintenance than your never-overweight best friend is depressing, but it’s worth coming to terms with. And, most important to remember, your brain (the organ behind all this, after all) is plastic, and it will respond to the changes you make – better than you think. And so will your body.
In Diet Straits: Can You Lose Weight with Diet Alone?
Is exercise necessary for weight loss? Or can you just cut cals to drop lbs? Is there really any need to get super sweaty and worked up?
So, can you lose weight with diet only?
Yes. As long as you take in fewer calories than you burn, you’re likely to lose weight.
Whether you’re trying to reduce, increase, or maintain your body weight, it’s important to create a sustainable, safe, and enjoyable eating pattern.
So, on top of changing their diet, people who are trying to lose weight will typically bump up their activity levels to create a larger calorie deficit. This allows them to follow a less restrictive diet and eat more of what they enjoy.
We lift the lid on how diet, exercise, and weight loss work in tandem.
Can you lose weight without exercising?
Yep. You can lose weight without exercising or increasing the amount of physical activity you do — as long as you burn more calories than you take in.
Plenty of factors contribute to weight gain. But the main causes typically involve consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity.
Creating a calorie deficit encourages weight loss. You can create a calorie deficit by reducing your calorie intake, increasing your activity level to burn more calories, or both.
However, physical activity and exercise — which are two different things, BTW — do so much more for your health than help you maintain body weight changes. A balanced, healthy lifestyle is the one.
Let’s compare the research on losing weight through calorie restriction only with the studies on a calorie restriction and exercise combo and see who wins. Rapper to our left, introduce yourself…
It is possible to lose weight through dietary changes alone. To do this, you need to create a calorie deficit, meaning taking in fewer calories than you burn each day.
- You usually consume 2,500 calories per day and stay in a calorie surplus (you take in more calories than you burn).
- You reduce your calorie intake by a few hundred calories per day, creating a calorie deficit.
- Voila! Weight loss (probably).
The more calories you cut from your intake, the faster you’re likely to lose weight. But cutting calories too drastically is not healthy and won’t help you in your quest to maintain and manage your weight long-term.
Low and very low calorie diets can cause compensatory changes in your body, including:
- increased appetite
- loss of muscle mass
- a drop in the number of calories your body burns on the daily
This makes it harder to maintain weight loss over time.
That’s why experts recommend making smaller cuts in calorie intake that minimize these side effects while encouraging a more sustainable form of weight loss.
Diet plus exercise
Sure, you can lose weight without changing your activity levels. But research shows that combining calorie reduction with increased physical activity is more effective than just cutting calories. So put that in your NutriBullet and blitz it.
For example, a 2021 study randomized 239 people with higher body weights into four groups:
- a calorie-restriction-only group that acted as the control group
- a group that restricted calorie intake but also did strength training
- a group that restricted calorie intake but took part in endurance training
- a group that combined calorie restriction, strength training, and endurance training (phew!)
All participants followed a diet that created a 25 to 30 percent calorie deficit. They followed this eating plan for 6 months. Peeps in the exercise groups did supervised exercise routines 3 times per week.
As expected, all the groups lost similar amounts of weight on the calorie-restricted diet.
But after 3 years, most of the groups had gained back most of the weight they’d lost. The only exceptions were in the group who followed the diet and smashed out strength and endurance workouts. They kept off a good amount of the body fat in the long term.
And that’s what you want, right? Sustainable change and lifestyle choices that last?
Plus, even though weight loss was similar among the groups, the exercise groups lost more body fat and maintained their lean mass. The control group lost lean mass.
Maintaining lean mass during weight loss is important. Losing muscle can screw with your metabolism, making it harder to maintain your weight. Which… kinda defeats the point.
Is cardio/endurance better than resistance training for weight loss?
A 2015 review of 66 studies found that programs combining reduced-calorie diets with exercise were better at reducing body fat and retaining lean mass than those focusing on diet alone.
The researchers found that resistance training was especially effective for boosting fat loss and supporting maintenance of lean mass.
In reality, the best exercise for weight loss is whatever gets you off your butt and moving around in combo with a calorie deficit.
A 2012 study of 399 women after menopause found that those who followed a calorie-restricted diet and took part in an aerobic exercise program lost:
- 8.4 percent more weight than women following exercise-only programs
- 2.3 percent more weight than women following a low calorie diet
So, although it’s possible to lose weight through cutting cals alone, it’s more effective if you add in a bit of physical activity for good measure.
The verdict: Weight loss through diet alone vs. diet and increased activity
Weight loss through diet alone is possible.
But studies show that upping activity levels in combination with calorie reduction is most effective for fat loss and maintaining muscle mass.
How to lose weight through changing your eating habits
Interested in losing weight and improving your health? Focus on including more nutritious foods in your diet to promote weight loss. It doesn’t have to taste or feel like punishment.
Are certain dietary patterns better than others?
The most important factor in weight loss is creating a calorie deficit. Period.
That means you could technically lose weight on a doughnut-only diet, as long as you stay in a calorie deficit. (Doughnut do that, BTW. We’ll keep making bad puns until you stop.)
What’s the healthiest diet for long-term weight maintenance?
Some research suggests that certain diets are more effective than others for long-term weight maintenance and improving other markers of health.
The “best” dietary pattern is any healthy eating plan you can stick to long-term. Yes, even when you’re on vacation, out to lunch, or enjoying a holiday meal with the fam. You guessed it — flexibility is key.
Also, any healthy diet should include lots of whole, nutrient-dense foods, especially fruits and veggies.
Shocker: Diets high in produce and whole foods have strong links to healthy body weight and long-term weight maintenance.
For example, the Mediterranean diet — one that’s full of produce, nuts, seeds, olive oil, fish, and beans — is one of the most effective and sustainable dietary patterns for reducing weight gain, promoting healthy body weight, and reducing chronic disease risk. Bellissimo!
Some other dietary patterns. such as vegetarian and low carb diets, can also be effective for weight loss.
Disclaimer: Low and very low carb diets tend to lead to rapid weight loss in the short term. But in the long term, their weight loss results are similar to those of other dietary patterns, such as low fat diets.
Some diets may also be more appropriate for certain people. For example, a low carb diet may help bring down high blood sugar and triglyceride levels in people with metabolic syndrome.
Searching for the best diet for weight loss is like trying to define the best type of hat. Everyone is different, with varying needs, tastes, goals, and health concerns. And trilbies are a terrible idea in both scenarios.
Consider what’s best for you personally when putting together your weight loss eating plan.
Calorie needs are highly individualized
Everyone has different calorie needs. They depend on a whole bunch of factors, including:
- body size
- activity levels
- overall health
If we were all identical, it would be handy for nutritionists but very, very boring for everyone else.
So, randomly following a low calorie diet that you found online may backfire. It might be completely inappropriate for your specific needs.
If you include exercise in your program or simply increase your activity levels, you’ll likely be able to create a calorie deficit by increasing how much energy you use. This means you don’t have to cut as many calories. (Yay!)
Weight Loss: Can You Do It With Exercise Alone?
If you want to lose weight, wouldn’t it be great to ditch your calorie-tracking apps and focus solely on your workouts? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Exercise while ignoring your diet just isn’t a good weight loss strategy, says exercise physiologist Katie Lawton, MEd.
“To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume or eat fewer calories than your body uses each day,” says Lawton. “If you don’t have a caloric deficit, you will not lose weight.”
On the flip side, it also depends on the type of exercises you do. Cardiovascular exercises like running, walking or biking are important, but you also need some resistance training to fuel your weight loss efforts. Here are some other recommendations to help you stay on track:
1. Use a calorie-tracking app
Sorry to break it to you, but you do need to track calories. Doing so will give you the insights you need to lose weight.
The good news is that it’s easier than ever before with apps like MyFitnessPal, Lose It! and FatSecret. These apps do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to calculating calories. For improved accuracy and to also make life easier, food scales can be beneficial.
“Some apps also track exercise to help you understand what your caloric deficit is each day,” she says. “Once you see the data, you may be amazed at how much you’re overeating or how many calories you’re consuming.”
For example, a 20-ounce bottle of soda contains about 230 calories and an average alcoholic beverage contains between 100 to 200 calories. Those are empty calories that your body doesn’t need and they really start to add up over time. However, moderation is key to making sure you reach your goal. Consult with your doctor or dietitian to figure out the perfect plan to help you on your weight loss journey.
2. Don’t focus on the scale
This might come as a surprise, but hear us out. Throw your scale out because you won’t be needing it.
“It may be difficult at first, but don’t focus on the scale,” she says. “Rather, pay attention to how you’re feeling and what your energy level is. Those are key factors, especially at the beginning.”
Just when you think the pounds won’t come off, they will. Your scale number may not change when you get on it and you may add muscle mass and muscle weighs more than fat. It’s more about how your body feels, how your clothes fit and how you’re perceiving yourself.
You may find that testing body composition either by 7-Site Skinfold or Bod Pod is helpful to determine if you are gaining lean muscle mass with weight loss. If you find that you are not increasing lean muscle mass, you may need to change your workouts or even your diet.
“If you’re using a handheld or scale method for determining body fat, that’s fine,” she says. “Just know that they are not entirely accurate. However, they can be consistent, so if you are going to use these modes, then make sure you are testing at the same time of day each time.”
3. Aim for 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise
The American Heart Association recommends getting 150 minutes per week (30 minutes, five days a week) of moderate-intensity activity minimum.
If you are meeting this and are still having trouble losing weight, then the next step would be to increase either the intensity or duration of the exercise.
Whether you walk, bike, jog or run, try to work in that 150 minutes of exercise. Even if running or biking isn’t your cup of tea, with so many different online exercise options available to us today, you’re sure to find one that you love and can continue doing.
“If you’re having trouble getting motivated to exercise, try to focus on getting at least 10 minutes of consecutive exercise at a time,” says Lawton. “Don’t worry about how fast you’re moving. Just move and keep moving.”
4. Hit the weights
The most common misconception about strength training is that you’ll get bulky. On the contrary, strength training will help you the most when it comes to losing weight and more importantly, keeping the weight off. That’s because you will burn more calories throughout the day by increasing your resting metabolic rate.
If you’re a member of a local gym, ask one of the trainers to show you some strength-training exercises or help you create a routine. You could use free weights, machines, or both.
If you prefer to work out in your own home, you can also buy some dumbbells and a weight bench to use at home. The good news is that there is a plethora of free (and paid subscription services) content available on the internet to learn about proper form and how to use weights properly.
5. Use a heart-rate monitor
To help reach your goal, try a heart-rate monitor. This can help guide you in knowing how intense your workouts are. However, just know that “fat burning zone” is actually at rest. You burn more carbs as the intensity increases during cardiovascular exercise.
Heart rate monitors can be stand-alone devices or you can find them built into some fitness trackers. They are generally more accurate than an exercise machine’s built-in monitor.
“If you’re ready to start, just be sure you’re healthy,” says Lawton. “Consult with your doctor and once you have a clean bill of health, go for it.”