Oh, we get competing messages, don’t we. The latest befuddlement that we’re trying to get our heads around is this “exercise myth” idea. In the “everything you used to think was right is wrong” vane, it’s now being suggested (ready for it?) that…

exercising can make us fat.

What do I think of this?

Photo by Rachel de Joode

Glad you asked, because it’s become a little project of mine lately – to wrap my head around the science of it all, and to encourage people to back off a little. To be gentle. To enjoy exercise and not use it as a self-flagellating mechanism of misery.

First, I should say…I used to do a lot of exercise

I used to self-flagellate. I used to run soft sand races and compete in 24-hour mountain bike races. I ran 10km to work when I edited magazines. And back. I went for 3-hour bush runs on weekends. I went to the gym, did chin-ups on first dates (and didn’t that end badly), and could beat my boyfriends in arm wrestles. Yes, it was an ego thing, too.

But a few years back it took its toll (the ego stuff as well). I kept trying to exercise hard. I kept getting injuries. And eventually I had to accept, that this way of doing things was somehow not right.

We are not meant to push ourselves. We are meant to move and be energised and get blood flowing…but beyond that, it’s just dumb and ineffective.

Exercise does not work for weight loss

Indeed, we’re designed to NOT lose weight when we exercise.

In his book Big Fat Lies, David Gillespie touches on the science that explains that we are designed to NOT burn off a lot of energy when we exercise. This is what enabled us to keep going and going all day and not waste away.

Then there’s the psychological element. If you’re doing exercise just for weight loss, don’t bother. Let me rephrase that. Exercise. Move. Keep active. But don’t expect it to make you lose a lot of weight.

A study compared hunter-gatherers in Tanzania with Western folk. It calculated the participants’ typical daily physical activity, energy expenditure and resting metabolic rates and found the former do move more, but they weren’t burning more calories. In fact, they found their metabolic rates the same as sedate Westerners. That’s the way we roll. Calories in doesn’t equal calories out. We’re far more complex than that.

To put things in perspective:

To burn off a piece of white bread you have to run up 20 flights of stairs.

In fact, it can make us fat!

A Time magazine cover story a while back – ”Why exercise won’t make you thin” – looked at all the evidence and found exercise may actually cause us to consume more calories than we expend, therefore negating the hard, sweaty work on the stair master. It jolted me awake when I read it. The article went as far as to say our over-exercising obsession is adding to the obesity epidemic.

Add to this, exercise can stimulate markedly acute cortisol responses which can encourages fat gain, particularly around the abdomen.

On top of all this, exercise weakens us. It exhausts the brain’s self-control “muscle” which can mean we’ll give in to a crappy meal after a big workout or get a bit lax with our incidental exercise (we drive to the shops to buy a packet of Clinkers, instead of walking there). Because we’re royally buggered – both physically and psychically.

Time concluded that, “In short, it’s what you eat, not how hard you try to work it off, that matters more in losing weight. You should exercise to improve your health, but be warned: fiery spurts of vigorous exercise could lead to weight gain.”

And, again, for perspective:

Some research has found that the obese already “exercise” more than most of the rest of us.

But! Gentle exercise for 30 minutes – just 30 minutes – works

A recent Danish study shows physical activity can indeed help shrink your person, so long as it’s around a half-hour a day, no more. Did you hear that? Thirty minutes… NO MORE!

I like this argument put forward by the New York Times’ Gretchen Reynolds:

Humans are born to stroll.

She advocates exercising 20 minutes a day.

But! You have to stick to it

A 2012 study from the University of Wyoming and a related study published in December  found that after three months of exercise, the volunteers consumed fewer calories throughout the day when they had the high-calorie shake than the lower-calorie one. Exercise “improves the body’s ability to judge the amount of calories consumed and to adjust for that afterward,” says the chick who led the study.

Longevity counts. You need to stick with the program for several months to truly fine-tune appetite control. Or stick to it for good.

Try short and intense stuff, too

This study shows short, intense workouts are best – for fat loss, increasing aerobic capacity, and reducing risk for cardiovascular disease.

This study shows that walking briskly for 10 minutes, 3 times a day was best for your health (better than one 30-minute stint).

This one shows two minutes of intense sprinting will boost metabolism over the next day just as much as a longer aerobic jaunt.

Over-exercising ages us and makes us sick

Overtraining has been shown to affect blood levels of important neurotransmitters such as glutamine, dopamine and 5-HTP, which can lead to feelings of depression and chronic fatigue.

And is problematic for autoimmune disease

The stress caused by intense, excessive exercise can negatively affect the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, and can lead to hypothyroidism. Hello, my experience! It also taxes the immune system: research has shown that it causes cellular damage which leads to hyper-activation of the immune system, including changes in natural killer cell activity, thus leading to the development of autoimmune conditions.

The best way to exercise?

To my mind, this is what works.

* Do it every day: Not 3-4 times a week. Every day. Otherwise you fatigue your decision muscle working out which days to skip.

* But keep it short and sweet: Achievable.

* Mix it up: To my mind, this is how our bodies are programmed to move. When we were cave people, which is when our bodies evolved to what they are today, one day we’d wander for hours looking for berries, the next we’re being chased by a tiger.

Me, I do something every day, even on thyroidy days and days when I’ve had no sleep. I just scale it back if I’m feeling crap.

I mix it up, pending weather and time constraints:

* Power yoga (heated, Vinyasa style): 1-2 times/week; 60 minutes.

* Swimming (walk to local seawater pool, 18 laps, walk home): 1-2 times/week; 30 minutes total.

* Weights (I have a home routine; I revert to this on days when it’s raining or I’m short on time. You can view a video of it here.): 1-2 times a week; 20 minutes

* Bush jogs (I head bush on weekends and explore beautiful bush walks in the region. It’s my sanity check after a frenetic week. It often turns into a jog, such is my energised joy with being bush): once a week/fortnight; 1-3 hours.

* Surfing: once a week/fortnight; 40 minutes.

* Jog/stair running (there’s a set of stairs near my house – I do a few laps of these or I do a jog around some parks near my place, integrating some hill climbs): 1-2 times/week; 25 minutes.

* Plus incidental exercise (I walk to appointments, ride to friend’s houses…I rarely drive when I’m in Sydney).

* To this end, just tie on your shoes and get out of the house. Don’t muck about with equipment and perfect parks. Just walk or jog. Swim at a nearby pool. Do a yoga class that’s on your way to the supermarket.

* Make it a routine. And, yes, a morning routine is best. Then it’s done. You’re feeling good. It’s a pivot point for your day. It sets the tone.

Me, I exercise in the morning.

I get up, drink water, attend to ablutions and am out the door within 15 minutes of rising. No emails. No putting on a load of washing.

I carry only a key – down my bra or in a small pocket in my shorts. Equipment just bogs you down and acts as a disincentive (“Where’s my water bottle?! Oh, darn, look, now I don’t have time to go for a jog”).

I keep my exercise kit – shoes, bra, shorts, togs, goggles – together in one pile in my laundry. I have only two – and only two – exercise outfits. Simple, no pfaffing.

I eliminate stages. That is, I don’t jog in a park I must first drive to. It creates a barrier, or disincentive, to just getting out the door and doing it.

I don’t really do classes. Again, they create barriers to just getting out of the house. That said, I have three yoga classes I like in an area I must travel to. However, I incorporate my grocery and chore shopping into the schlep, which negates the disincentive!


* Do it to clear your skin: That is, exercise to get fresh air, get a clear head, a lovely glow etc. – stuff that can make you feel better now. A bunch of psychologists have found that when you force yourself to exercise for future health, weight loss or body image as motivators it doesn’t work. The results are too slow, if there are any, and so we get dispirited. Doing it to get happy and feel good today does. I’ve written about this before.

* When all else fails, just walk.

Me, I’ll often do a 20 minute walk in the afternoon if I’ve had to skip exercise in the morning, for some reason.

I keep it simple – I walk around the neighbourhood and just get calm and clear.

I turn it into a flanerie.

And I love this FREE iPhone app – Moves. It counts your steps for you.

I’ll often clock up 10km in a day without realising it.

I’ve written this very looooong post because I keep getting asked about the topic. Also, I’m in a really good spot with my exercise routine and my body and health is responding really well to it, so I wanted to share what I feel works, and what works for countless experts I’ve chatted to over the years.

What are your thoughts??


Have your say, leave a comment.

  • H

    I have read a lot of the studies about exercise and weight control and this is what I discovered: NOBODY KNOWS. Absolutely no-one can claim to have the answers, and scientists are the first to admit it.

    There are some studies showing that exercise suppresses appetite and increases weight loss, but there are also some studies which show it increases appetite and causes weight gain.

    Why? Nobody knows. Is it the type of exercise? The particular
    conditions in your body when you do the exercise? Does everyone’s body react differently? Are you male, female, young, old, fit, sedentary, stressed or relaxed?
    All these could change how your body responds to exercise.

    And guess what? Diet and exercise have a totally different effect on women than men, a fact which is often ignored. That’s worth thinking about because most studies don’t even bother to look at women at all, so 50% of us can chuck the results of the studies out the window anyway. The “experts” are often quoting us stuff that only works for men. (If you’re struggling and you’re a woman, it could be because you’re in a body designed to retain body fat and be ready for a baby, while your exercise regime is meant for males who can sustain hard physical labour and long periods without eating.)

    Long story short, it’s an unsolved mystery.

    Our bodies are exceptionally complex and the mechanisms linking diet, exercise, weight gain and weight loss are not yet fully understood. Anybody who says they know the answers is lying. End of story.

    Under such circumstances, I think the best advice for anybody is to suck it and see. Try something, observe carefully how it affects YOU, and then decide whether or not it is beneficial for you.

  • Ana T. Garcia

    In regards to present day fashion, the fitness world has created a craze of certain items such as gym tank tops and yoga pants that are worn as casual wear by many people on a dailybasis, whether they attend a gym or not.weight lifting shorts

  • Anna

    I have spent a lot of time reading the past conversation between David and Sarah. The only point that keeps popping in my head is this -it works for SARAH. She is not telling the world that her methods will work for everything like many weight loss and we’ll being gimmicks we have in this world. And trust me I’ve done them all being a formerly severely obese person. Or actually, don’t trust me… Trust yourself, your instincts and your body and find out what the research of yourself is saying. Sarah’s not pushing us to do anything that “works for sure”.


    • coni scarberry

      agree, anna!!!

  • San

    Hi, I just found this article and I notice that I have cut down to some bearable and (in the long-term) steady exercise level. I have a question. I used to think that I need food within the first two hours after exercise, but now I am trying the no-snack approach from the IQS book. If I feel okay, is it okay if I, say, eat breakfast at 7, then go to Yoga from 9 to 10, then eat lunch between 12 and 1? How do you balance meals and workouts?

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  • Sam Mk

    Muscles often lead to a thought of those weight lifters with those big physique and small bulks that look like stones. Workouts don’t just make an individual bigger with the muscles. It tones up the muscle to make an individual look fit and healthy. It depend on what approach is being done since the higher intensity of workout was performed; the more muscles will be built up.

    Best Way to Lose Fat and Gain Muscles Fast

  • Fanatoli Guyoff

    That’s weird the only time I lost significant weight was by implementing a simple and moderate weight lifting plan. I stopped and a couple years later, fat again. My diet has never significantly changed.

  • Tonja Morris

    I have fallen off the motivation wagon and gained 30lbs and have been looking for something to motivate me –I think I found it in this article. I am a huge fan of DVDs –Slim and Six, Kettle Works, etc. They average 30-45 in length–three years ago I worked out every AM to one of these DVDs and was in in great shape–I had the answer all alone I just got distracted–this article has motivated to restart this immediately–everyday! Thank you!

  • Candice

    thanks for this Sarah, I absolutely love your website, book and blog, and your whole philosophy. It seems to be about treating your body well and being kind to yourself, respecting yourself. I have been there, and am not proud to say, but am currently there, with over exercising as you used to do. But then I am recovering from anorexia, which came on from my determination to be as healthy as possible, only eat healthy food and exercise every day, I just took it too far. I exercise twice a day, morning and night, every day. Your article has helped me though in more and more things I read that say that you don’t need to kill yourself in exercising every day. I am working on it and I will try and get out of that mental space that keeps telling me I have to exercise, because I know what’s healthy is what you are saying – just 30 minutes a day consistently.So just wanted to say thanks for the inspiration!

  • cb

    Nobody needs a personal trainer or a gym, they require a simple routine of just getting out of the bloody house on both feet and walking one foot infront of the other. I’m mid thirties and fitter than all of those gym freaks that i used to watch with amusement when in my twenties. Sure, they had bigger muscles but they are all now on their knees and muscles turn to fat. It’s unsustainable. However, walking is lifelong sustainable. My gran in 95 and she’s been a rambler/walker all of her life. Only idiots require personal training and goals and special milkshakes and pills. it;s all American bullshit marketing and you guys need to realise that you don;t need to spend money to buy solutions that are not needed. Just get off your fat asses and walk instead of jumping in one of those horrible big 4 wheel drive beasts and bombing it to Mcdonalds drive thrus.

  • anon

    your body looks like you never exercised a muscle in your life, i suggest no one buys into these insane claims about exercise. you seem to believe everything they say is based on credible science. time magazine, LOL

  • Karlirae77

    Hi Sarah I wondering if you could help… I try to exercise each day and my degree (theatre) is also quite active but on some days I do Yoga. The Yoga class I attend is a mix of the different styles so isn’t ‘really’ intense. Is this enough ‘exercise’ for one day? Also I do have 1 rest day in my week. Is this bad? Should i be going for a walk on this day or is it alright?
    Thanks so much!!

  • jackie

    I love this, I too have been obsessed with high intensity exercise thinking I needed to ‘keep it up’ to stay a healthy weight. It’s all bollocks and makes you exhausted, taking energy from you and adding stress to your life.

  • coni scarberry

    I agree,,,, i really enjoyed this article,,, it helped me re-think my exercising so hard 3x a week,,, my mind is always on losing the weight,,, then i get so frustrated when i gain!! i need to just relax and swim (that’s my exercise, plus walking) for the other health benefits and to just do it so i am moving!! thanks again! Coni

  • coni scarberry

    It certainly helped me gain a new perspective on what i am doing. I was starting to get down about not losing weight,,, now i am going to make a few changes that i learned from Sarah and see what happens. Thanks Sarah!!

  • coni scarberry

    well said!!! my thoughts too!

  • coni scarberry


  • Helle

    Since you ask(ed… a long time ago): my thoughts are, this corroborates, almost verbatim, all I’ve been believing, saying and doing for many years. Yes. It works. Natural, joyous moving (like dancing, swimming, whatever one prefers) for no longer than sweet half an hour or less – and, most of all, walking every day – definitely works, and fast.

    I wish many, many – like millions – more people would read this and heed it.

  • Helle

    Stories or theories – I am living proof that heavy “exercise” can actually get you exactly NOWHERE in terms of weight loss (or well-being, for that matter), whereas pleasantly brisk walking every day – at first undertaken simply for pleasure – resulted in astonishingly rapid slimming. (I don’t weigh myself, I go by what I see and feel.)
    Maybe it’s different for obese people – although I seriously doubt it – but in moderately overweight people it seems to works wonders where “workouts” have no effect.

  • Helle

    “I must be the only person who doesn’t get really hungry after exercising. Its odd, I usually just want rehydration. Then, a couple of hours later I get hungry, but not immediately afterwards.”

    No, you are not the only one (and I don’t think it’s odd).
    I must say, i am a little puzzled myself when I read or hear about people being hungry after exercise.

    Anyway, in my case the failure to slim with any sort of “workouts” couldn’t have been due to eating more, because, like I said, I did NOT eat more after exercise (or at any point during the day).
    I think pleasure and joy – among other things – must have an effect, because just pleasantly brisk walking (which I do enjoy) a little longer every day has worked incomparably better and faster when it comes to slimming. (And I don’t eat less than before.)

  • Helle

    I never get colds or sniffles, either – the last time was in 1999, for two days – and it’s certainly NOT because of getting my blood pumping, religiously or not. 🙂

  • Miwa

    I have a question regarding this… I work in retail and am on my feet all day would this be counted as this sort of gentle daily exercise..?