Is Exercise Truly Supportive of Fat Loss?

Western society has been conditioned to think of exercise as a key ingredient — perhaps one of the most important ingredients — of any fat loss effort. In truth, the evidence has been accumulating for years that exercise, while great for health, may actually not be all that important for fat loss.

Exercise can, in fact undermine fat loss in subtle ways.

How much you eat is connected to how much you move. When you move more, you sometimes eat more too, or eat less when you are not exercising.

Research has shown that people increase their food intake after exercise — either because they thought they burned off a lot of calories or because they were hungrier. Furthermore, people generally overestimate how much energy exercise burned and tend to eat more when exercising. There is also evidence to suggest that some people slow down and move less after an intense workout, using less energy on their non-exercise related activities. This could include deciding to lie down for a rest, fidgeting less due to fatigue, or take the elevator instead of the stairs.

These small shifts, changes and compensatory behaviors are the adjustments you may be unconsciously making after working out to rebalance or offset the energy output.

There are, however, a few reasons that exercise for weight loss can actually be helpful or supportive. Exercise does help as part of a weight loss protocol. It is simply not sufficient on its own and does not work through burning more calories.

How Exercise Supports Fat Loss

Body Composition

Exercise changes body composition, improves resting metabolic rate (the energy it takes to simply be) and alters food preferences. Sadly, these facts often go largely unnoticed when compared to sensationalized diet products and media promoted ‘quick fix’ solutions. Change through exercise over time is a much tougher sell and requires a longer-term commitment than a seven-day cleanse. Many folks also find making time for movement on a daily basis to be unreasonable or undoable, and find themselves looking elsewhere for an easier fix. A Paleo lifestyle promotes moving regularly and exercising often (conventionally or unconventionally), further supporting fat loss goals.

Daily Habits

A Paleo lifestyle does not differentiate diet and exercise into 2 separate camps – they exist together, you need both.

Exercise directly impacts dietary habits, meaning it will make choosing your Paleo foods easier and implementing your Paleo lifestyle more successfully. Without regular movement, abrupt changes in dietary habits, or long-term commitment to lifestyle choices are very difficult to sustain.

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Exercise can provide significant hormonal and psychological benefits even with workouts like strength training that are not hugely calorically demanding. This requires an, understanding that fat loss is not simply a math equation of calories in vs calories out. The hormonal environment in your body, and whether your body is set up metabolically to store fat or to burn it play a much bigger role.

There are 3 hormones that are critical to fat loss success

  1. Insulin
  2. Thyroid Hormone
  3. Sex hormones (testosterone in men, and progesterone in women)

When kept in balance, these hormones have a large effect on metabolism and achieving and maintaining body composition.


Insulin is produced in the beta cells of the pancreas in response to elevated glucose levels in the blood. In small doses, insulin is very anabolic, but when insulin is secreted consistently over long periods of time, the ability to burn fat is impacted.

First, since the muscles are not getting fed, they signal the brain telling it you are hungry, especially for sugar since it is the fastest thing to bring energy levels up. Next it increases inflammation systemically which then increases cortisol. Lastly, when glucose levels rise, your body tries really hard to do anything it can to lower it so it shifts fuel utilization away from fat-burning to carbohydrate (glucose)-burning.

Since insulin balance and blood glucose regulation go hand-in-hand, and elevated blood glucose slows down fat utilization, maintaining a healthy insulin balance is important for the metabolism. Exercise is one of the best ways to restore insulin sensitivity. Improved insulin sensitivity has further fat loss benefits including

  • Fewer blood sugar highs and lows.
  • Greater ability to burn calories for energy instead of storing them as fat.
  • Better regulation of appetite-controlling hormones, like leptin.

Thyroid Hormone

Thyroid hormones are the main metabolic hormone in the body. They are produced by the thyroid gland, located in the throat, in response to thyroid stimulating hormone that comes from the pituitary gland. However, the initial hormone produced by the thyroid, thyroxine4 (T4), is metabolically inactive. It must be converted into T3 in order to affect your metabolism.

Exercise intensity, especially in terms of cardiovascular exercise, has a profound effect on the thyroid hormones. and can improve both thyroid balance and function. This in turn supports fat loss.

Sex Hormones

Testosterone and progesterone are the two main hormones in males and females, respectively. In males, if testosterone levels fall, it causes a loss of energy, limited ability to build and maintain muscle mass, and a loss in libido. In women, lowered progesterone production causes an imbalance in the estrogen to progesterone ratio resulting in irregular menstrual cycles, an increased risk for PCOS, pre-menopausal symptoms, and an increase of fat storage around the hips and triceps.

High intensity resistance training has been shown to have the most beneficial effect on testosterone in men and cardio training and resistance training at a moderate intensity has shown similar results on the sex hormones in women.

Emotional Wellbeing

Exercise simply makes most people feel good and is one of the best tools for improving mental health. It gives you more energy, is an effective stress management tool and can support treating depression.

Having more energy makes it easier to maintain healthy behaviors even when they are challenging or not convenient. More energy means making healthy choices even when it takes effort (and to be honest, often it does!) is easier to do and you become more successful at it.

Exercise has also been shown to reduce sugar cravings. In a world where treats and processed food temptations abound, reducing the cravings or desires for sweets can help you maintain your Paleo lifestyle and nutrition goals.


There is a huge benefit in being around other people who care about their health. Simply being part of a gym community, running club, or other athletic group can help you stay motivated to maintain all your Paleo lifestyle choices and move further towards your fat loss goals. Sharing social connection with like-minded people make a healthy lifestyle more enjoyable to live.

In Summary

Exercise is extremely good for your health, but it is not an activity that supports fat loss by balancing out or compensating for poor dietary choices. In that context, exercise is not supportive of fat loss.

It becomes clear, however, that exercise can absolutely be a part of a fat loss plan. This is not because it burns a lot of calories, but because it re-regulates carbohydrate metabolism, improves mood, and helps reduce cravings. Of course, abrupt calorie restrictions will result in weight loss for the short run, but it is extremely difficult to maintain for significant lengths of time, and many  people quit and regain lost weight. Exercise, however, is a tried and true way to make dietary changes more tolerable. Focusing on regular exercise can ultimately help making better food choices and enjoying a Paleo lifestyle, which means significant weight loss that can be maintained over time.

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