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How exercise can make you pile on the pounds: Are you keeping fit but still not getting any slimmer? Here are the surprising reasons why

  • Last month an article claimed exercise ‘does not promote weight loss’
  • Studies also show that it is ‘unlikely to result in short-term weight loss’ 
  • But why isn’t your gym regime giving you the results you’re looking for? 

Ever spent hours pounding away on a treadmill, then coming to the end of the week and finding your weight hasn’t shifted at all?

Or how about eating cake in the knowledge you’d been for a long cycle ride, yet somehow piling on the pounds? You’re not alone — or going mad. You’ve simply fallen foul of something scientists are increasingly recognising: exercise often doesn’t help you lose weight. And worse yet, there’s increasing evidence that it could even make you fatter. Just last month, in an article for the British Journal Of Sports Medicine, doctors said we have wrongly emphasised that physical activity can prevent people becoming very overweight.

29D5A5EE00000578-3133633-image-m-8_1434916114178Last month an article claimed exercise ‘does not promote weight loss’ and studies also show that a gym regime alone is ‘unlikely to result in short-term weight loss’ (picture posed by model) 

The truth, they said, is that while physical activity is useful in reducing the risk of disease, it ‘does not promote weight loss’. That false perception, they claimed, ‘is rooted in the food industry’s public relations machine, which uses tactics chillingly similar to big tobacco companies — denial, doubt and confusing the public’.

In addition, the Mayo Clinic, an eminent medical research group in the U.S., says studies ‘have demonstrated no or modest weight loss with exercise alone’ and that ‘an exercise regime is unlikely to result in short-term weight loss’. Here are the reasons why your gym membership isn’t giving you the whittled waist you want…


There are a lot of conflicting reports about the effects of exercise on appetite. We’re all familiar with the idea of going for a walk to work up an appetite, but most research seems to suggest that exercise doesn’t necessarily make us eat more. Rather, it can make us eat the wrong things.

The post-workout bar of chocolate to celebrate a job well done — or even a healthy banana — can undo all your good work without you realising.

This is known as ‘compensation’ by sports scientists: a person who exercises cancels out the calories they have burned by eating more, generally as a form of self-reward.

29D7E32F00000578-3133633-image-m-19_1434922125042Most research seems to show that exercise doesn’t actually make us eat more (picture posed by model) 

This was demonstrated in a recent study by Arizona State University, which focused on the effects of exercise on 81 overweight women with sedentary lifestyles. The researchers asked them to participate in a 12-week exercise programme involving three treadmill sessions a week. They were told to follow their usual diet.

The research found that while they were fitter, there was no noticeable weight loss and 70 per cent of the women had piled on some fat.

While the study didn’t track the women’s eating and movement habits away from the lab, it is likely that those who gained weight began eating more and moving less when they weren’t on the treadmills — ‘probably without meaning to’, say the scientists.

Obesity researcher Zoe Harcombe believes that exercise has a psychological affect on what and how much we eat. ‘Exercise is seen as being deserving of a reward,’ she says. ‘WeightWatchers even builds the concept into their programmes, giving you extra points for exercise. But, all too often, the treat that people reward themselves with is out of proportion to the amount of exercise they’ve done.’

Study after study has shown that we’re notoriously bad at estimating the number — and type — of calories we’ve consumed.

One, which looked at more than 5,000 adults, found the participants under-estimated their consumption of fats, oils and sweets, and overestimated how much fruit and protein they’d eaten. By the same token, most of us woefully underestimate how much exercise we need to offset indulgences.

The other issue is that, even if you did nothing, your body would be burning calories. For example, a 10 st person just lying watching TV for an hour will burn about 70 calories. But exercise machines show you the total number of calories burnt — what your body is expending on its own and the extra you’re burning while doing exercise.

The rowing machine may tell you you’ve burned 250 calories for an hour’s work, but you’ve actually ‘earned’ only a 180-calorie reward.

So if you reward your 20-minute run (218 calories expended, but actually only 148 extra calories) with a latte (180 calories), you’re, in fact, taking on more calories than if you hadn’t exercised.

Multiply that on a weekly basis, and you can see how things get difficult.


We’re often told exercise is the solution to stress, but it actually releases the fight or flight hormone cortisol — also known as the stress hormone. If our bodies are functioning properly, most of this cortisol is offset by endorphins, or anti-stress chemicals, the body also produces during exercise. However, according to personal trainer Janey Holliday (, if you’re already stressed and your hormonal system isn’t working as it should be, that excess cortisol won’t be efficiently offset, leading to even more of the stress hormone in your body.

‘Cortisol is bad news for anyone wanting to lose weight,’ says Janey. ‘Research shows that high levels of cortisol cause the body to hold onto fat and boost appetite.’

Worse yet, cortisol encourages fat to be stored around the middle, and it’s known that fat in this area is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and breast cancer.

‘If you’re stressed and want to lose weight, you might be far better off working on improving your sleep and relaxing by doing a bit of power walking, rather than throwing yourself into a punishing routine,’ adds Janey.


Are you the type of person who swears they just can’t shift the pounds? Annoyingly, there’s probably something in it.

A recent review of studies related to exercise and weight found that people lost barely a third as many pounds as would have been expected, given how many calories they were burning during workouts. Many studies also report enormous variations in how people’s waistlines respond to the same exercise programme, with some dropping pounds and others gaining fat.

The latest trend for High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) where you exercise intensively for short bursts with short recovery in between is said to burn as many as 12 calories in a minute.

That might sound impressive, but the standard 20-minute workout will only just cover a large glass of wine, and even the fittest people would struggle to do the three back-to-back workouts that half a bottle of wine, a shared pack of Kettle Chips and a handful of olives would require.

Crucially, when you’ve started exercising, you need to keep it up — one U.S. study suggested that weight gained after stopping exercise can be tough to shed when exercise is resumed. And once you’ve reached your goal weight, it’s a lot of work to stay there.


If you take an energy drink to the gym, or carb-load on a Friday in preparation for your Saturday morning run, that might be where you’re going wrong. Thanks to health magazines and the internet, it’s easy to find information that may work for pro-athletes, but is actually unhealthy for the rest of us.

‘I’ve lost count of the number of fitness fanatics I have tried to help with weight problems, only to be told that they have to “carb-load”, or that they must have sports drinks, or gels, or snack bars,’ says Zoe Harcombe. ‘Actually, they need none of these. They’re full of calories, and fattening.’


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