Can You Lose Weight Without Exercise?

Can you lose weight and keep it off without exercising? Diet and exercise are both important to your long-term health goals, but let’s see what the research says.

Woman wearing workout clothes and wearing apple watch

Does the thought of going to a gym bring back memories of junior high, when social points were gained strictly based on physique? Is your treadmill serving double-duty as a clothes rack or, let’s be honest, only as a dry rack? You need somewhere to dry your clothes! 

It’s no wonder some people cringe at the thought of exercising. When you’re first starting out, it’s painful—either emotionally from feeling like you don’t measure up or physically from DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). 

Can you lose weight without exercising? While diet and exercise are both important to your health, let’s see what the research says.   

How Exercise Contributes to Weight Loss

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise<sup>1</sup> per week and resistance exercise that strengthens all major muscle groups two days per week. 

How Much Exercise Are People Actually Doing? 

When researchers tracked activity in 3,370 adults aged 20 to 65<sup>2</sup>, they found that men spent approximately 35 minutes per day engaged in moderate activity. Women spent 21 minutes per day. Over 75% of this activity was in one-minute bursts. After age 50, activity decreased in all groups studied. 

As seen in this study, the 15–30 minutes of exercise per day recommended by the CDC can be subdivided into brief sessions. Exercise is a planned, structured, and purposeful activity. 

Lifestyle activity is any activity that moves your body throughout the day. Overall calorie burn from these movements adds up. Examples of lifestyle activities<sup>3</sup> include taking the stairs, cleaning the house, cutting the grass, and walking instead of driving when doing errands. These activities, referred to as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)<sup>4</sup> can add up to 2,000 kcal of energy spent above your basal metabolic rate. 

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Read More: Here's some tips to help increase your metabolism

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What Kind of Exercise Is Most Important? 

Researchers tracked the sitting and exercise patterns, blood glucose, serum lipids, cholesterol, weight, waist circumference, and blood pressure of 168 people. What they found is that prolonged sitting is a problem. More breaks, even very short ones, were associated with better glucose and lipid levels<sup>5</sup>, as well as decreased body fat. Standing periodically, instead of sitting all day, increases total daily energy expenditure and resistance to fat gain. 

In a meta-analysis of 66 population-based studies and 162 study wise groups, researchers found that resistance training was more effective for weight loss than endurance training<sup>6</sup>. However, endurance training had a greater effect on fasting insulin levels. A combination of resistance training plus diet had a greater effect on weight loss than diet alone or diet along with endurance training.

Not Everyone Agrees on the Benefits of Exercise for Weight Loss

A study that enrolled over 1,700 participants showed that a long-term increase in physical activity<sup>7</sup> does not directly translate into a comparable boost in total energy expenditure because other components of total energy expenditure will decrease in response. 

Herman Pontzer, PhD,<sup>8</sup> agrees. He studied the Hadza people of Tanzania, incredibly active hunter-gatherers. He was sure they burned large numbers of calories per day. Instead, he found that people burn calories in a very narrow range, up to 3,000 per day, no matter how much they exercise. 

Researchers have tracked stable isotopes in water to show that people in rural Nigeria had the same calorie expenditure<sup>9</sup> as Americans at the same age and body weight. 

The Hadza people move about five hours a day hunting and gathering. They are incredibly healthy well into old age. Regular physical activity<sup>10</sup> decreases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and some cancers. 

Resistance and aerobic exercise both have their benefits. Resistance exercise increases muscle mass, which can increase basal metabolic rate. Aerobic exercise improves cardiovascular health and decreases the risk of chronic disease. 

However, for weight loss, there is significant evidence that suggests that diet has a much bigger impact on weight loss than exercise. 

Simple Ways to Incorporate Resistance Training into Your Daily Routine

Strength training, or resistance exercise, can increase lean muscle mass, speed up your resting metabolic rate<sup>11</sup>, increase your bone density<sup>12</sup> and stabilize your insulin levels<sup>13</sup>. There are many opportunities to sneak resistance training into your daily activities without using weights or gym equipment. 

Try adding some of these to your daily routine. Repeat each one as many times as possible. The benefit of each movement adds up over time: 

  • Do squats while brushing your teeth.
  • Do biceps curls with the milk carton before breakfast.
  • Lift heavy things throughout the day, such as grocery bags, pets, and children.
  • Use the kitchen counter for push-ups.
  • Set your purse or bag on the floor and squat to pick it up. 
  • Do a wall sit in your office or living room.
  • Clench and hold your core muscles for 10 seconds when you are in the car.
  • Use your kitchen chair to do triceps dips. 
  • Instead of walking, try doing lunges.

Calorie burn increases every time you choose to walk instead of drive, climb the stairs, or use your body weight for resistance exercise. Over time, these lifestyle activities become part of your daily life. You may get to where you no longer think of them as exercise!

6 Ways to Maximize the Impact of a Healthy Diet on Weight Loss

Losing weight without exercise may take a greater focus on maximizing the nutritional value of your diet while cutting calories. However, according to the Lancet, poor diet causes more adverse health<sup>10</sup> consequences than physical inactivity, smoking, and alcohol use combined. 

An analysis of 66 population-based studies and 162 study groups found that if diet alone was used for weight loss, the most effective type is a low-calorie, high-protein, and low-carbohydrate diet<sup>14</sup>.   

1. Drink plenty of water

Drinking water versus not drinking a beverage increases energy expenditure<sup>15</sup> and fat breakdown<sup>16</sup>. Drinking water versus drinking beverages high in calories lowers overall caloric intake<sup>17</sup>. 

When you drink chilled water, your body needs to expend energy (burn calories) to warm the water to body temperature. In one small study, metabolic rate increased by 30%<sup>18</sup> after 14 participants drank 500ml of water at 71°F, burning 100 calories of energy. 

When overweight women increased overall water intake and substituted water for caloric beverages, they lost an average of 5 pounds<sup>19</sup> over one year. Over one year, drinking a liter of water per day burned enough calories to metabolize 4.4 pounds of fat. 

Another study showed that water drinkers consumed 194 fewer calories<sup>20</sup> per day than non-water drinkers. Consuming 16 ounces of water before each meal helped middle-aged and older adults lose around four pounds more over 12 weeks<sup>21</sup> when compared to those eating the same healthy diet without an increase in water consumption. 

Water helps your body maintain a normal temperature, protects organs, lubricates and cushions joints, and helps your body get rid of chemical wastes. Maintaining water balance in the body is important enough that multiple hormones and organs work together to regulate it. 

Ways to increase water in your diet: 

  • Drink a full glass of water before every meal 
  • Infuse water with flavors such as lemon and lime
  • Use a smartphone app (like Signos) to track your water intake 
  • Set reminders on your phone to take a water (and standing) break
  • Eat fruits and vegetables high in water content such as lettuce, celery, zucchini, and cucumber
  • Carry a reusable water bottle with you
  • Drink a full glass of water in the morning, when you brush your teeth, and before going to bed
  • Opt for water when eating out.

Drinking enough water is healthy for many reasons, including weight loss. However, increasing water intake alone will not lead to significant weight loss. In healthy people eating a mixed diet, only about 10% of energy expended throughout the day is used to metabolize food and water. 

2. Fill up on fiber

Insoluble fiber provides bulk to stool and improves gastrointestinal motility. Viscous fiber has multiple metabolic effects, including improving blood sugar control<sup>22</sup>, lipid profile<sup>23</sup>, and blood pressure<sup>24</sup>. 

In a meta-analysis of 62 studies, researchers showed that an increase in viscous fiber<sup>25</sup> in the diet reduced mean body weight, BMI, and waist circumference. However, there was no change in body fat. Researchers rated their certainty in these results as high for waist circumference and body fat, moderate for body weight, and low for BMI. 

High Fiber Foods

Foods that are high in fiber<sup>26</sup> include:

Food Grams of Fiber
Artichoke 9.6 grams per serving
Beans 8.3 - 9.6 grams per serving
Sapodilla 9.5 grams per serving
High-fiber unsweetened cereal 14.0 grams per serving
Grains 2.8 - 4.1 grams per serving
Berries 6.1 - 8.0 grams per serving
Nuts 2.8 - 4.1 grams per serving

3. Watch your sugar

Americans consume more than 300% of the daily recommended amount<sup>27</sup> of added sugar. This is equivalent to sixty pounds of added sugar each year. The American Heart Association recommends<sup>28</sup> that adults limit their sugar consumption to 25 g/day for women and 36 g/day for men. 

Researchers question whether it’s the calories from sugar or sugar itself<sup>29</sup> that is the problem. In a study in which researchers replaced sugar with artificial sweeteners, no short-term weight loss<sup>30</sup> was observed. However, after a year, the group consuming artificial sweeteners had improved weight management. Similar results were obtained when sugar was replaced with complex carbohydrates. 

Population-wide, every 150 calories/person/day increase in sugar availability (about one can of soda) increases the prevalence of diabetes<sup>31</sup> in the population by 1.1%. Increasing evidence shows that sugar, especially in a beverage, can bypass the satiety control mechanism<sup>32</sup> in the body. Sugar calories promote fat storage and hunger. Protein calories, on the other hand, induce satiety.

How to reduce sugar<sup>33</sup> in your diet: 

  • Avoid all sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks, and coffees and teas
  • Avoid snack foods
  • Avoid sweetened breakfast foods, including cereals, energy bars, flavored yogurts, and smoothies made with juice or only fruit
  • Avoid syrups, molasses, jellies, jams, drink mixes, and candy
  • Avoid sugar-sweetened  ice cream, gelato, and other frozen desserts
  • Avoid sweet rolls and bread, cakes, cookies, donuts, pastries, pies, and desserts

4. Eat more protein

Protein promotes a sense of fullness<sup>34</sup> by increasing levels of appetite-reducing hormones such as GLP-1<sup>35</sup>, peptide YY<sup>36</sup>, and cholecystokinin<sup>37</sup> while reducing the hunger-inducing hormone ghrelin<sup>38</sup>. 

In one small study, an increase in dietary protein<sup>39</sup> from 15–30% of energy while maintaining a constant carbohydrate intake led to a decrease in calorie intake by 441 calories per day with an average weight loss of 11 pounds over 12 weeks. Increasing protein intake increases satiety and can lead to a decrease in overall calorie consumption. 

Dietary protein requires between 20% and 30% of its usable energy<sup>40</sup> for metabolizing or storing protein, whereas carbohydrates require only 5–10% and dietary fats between 0–3%. Metabolizing a mixed diet while in energy balance makes up 5–15% of your daily energy expenditure<sup>41</sup>. 

Increasing protein in your diet is a great choice, but keep in mind that your body can only metabolize about 25–30 grams of protein<sup>42</sup> in an hour. Anything above this amount is burned for energy or converted to glycogen or fat. Bump your protein intake<sup>43</sup> up to 1.2–1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight. 

Foods that are high in protein in grams per serving<sup>44</sup> include: 

Food Grams of Protein
Beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb 7 grams of protein per ounce
Eggs 6 grams of protein per egg
Soy milk 7 grams of protein per 8 ounces
Tofu 3 grams of protein per ounce
Lentils 9 grams of protein per half-cup
Beans 8 grams of protein per half-cup
Nuts 4-6 grams of protein per ounce
Milk 8 grams of protein per 8 ounces
Yogurt 5 grams of protein per 6 ounces
Cheese 7 grams of protein per ounce
High-protein cereal 7-15 grams of protein per 3/4—1 1/3 cup

5. Eat mindfully

People who eat mindfully and without distraction consume fewer calories. In a meta-analysis of 24 studies, researchers found that distraction caused greater food intake during the meal. However, eating while distracted has a bigger effect on food consumption<sup>45</sup> later. Not remembering how much you ate may lead to overeating later in the day. 

Researchers from the Center for Nutrition Research at the University of Paris followed 14,400 men and 49,228 women. They found that women with a higher degree of mindfulness<sup>46</sup> were less likely to be overweight or obese. Men with higher mindfulness while eating had lower odds of being obese. 

In a systematic review of 19 studies, researchers found that participants who used mindfulness interventions had significant weight loss<sup>47</sup>. However, they stressed that further research is needed to explore the connection between mindfulness and weight loss.

When adults with type 2 diabetes were taught mindfulness techniques, researchers found that diabetes self-management and mindful eating training both led to an improved diet, modest weight loss, and better glycemic control<sup>48</sup>. 

Strategies to practice mindful eating: 

  • Remove distractions when you are eating
  • Be aware of how much you eat, what you eat, and why you are eating
  • Recognize sensations of hunger and fullness
  • Enjoy your food by taking the time to sense, taste, and savor it
  • Look at your portion sizes before and as you eat
  • Manage stress and emotions to minimize the risk of emotional eating
  • Keep a food diary or use a smartphone app to track food intake
  • Before eating, verify you’re eating to satiate hunger, and not choosing to eat as a result of boredom, seeing or smelling food, or because you saw someone else eating 
  • Eat slowly and enjoy the process
  • Let hunger guide when you eat, not convenience or a schedule. 

6. Watch portion sizes

Portion sizes are deceiving, and they are increasing. The average American eats 500 calories (49) more per day than in the 1970s. Eating more outside the home and larger portion sizes are both contributing factors to this increase in daily calorie consumption. 

Portion Sizes At Restaurants

When researchers sampled foods sold at takeout restaurants, fast-food outlets, and family-style restaurants, every sample (except white bread) exceeded, sometimes by a lot, FDA and USDA recommended portion sizes. French fries, hamburgers, and soda are all two to five times<sup>49</sup> their original size! 

Here are some of their results<sup>49</sup>:

Food Portion Served at Restaurants
Cookies 700% of USDA recommendation
Pasta 480% of USDA recommendation
Muffins 333% of USDA recommendation
Steaks 224% of USDA recommendation
Bagels 195% of USDA recommendation

No doubt the portion sizes have increased, but what does that mean in terms of how much we eat? Americans expect to see a larger portion size, as it has become “normal.” 

In a 2014 meta-analysis of studies exploring the relationship between portion size and caloric intake, researchers found: 

<ul role="list"><li>Nine studies explored the portion size of snacks. In a third of these studies, when portion size was increased by 100%, adults ate 34%<sup>50</sup> to 80% more<sup>51</sup> snack food.</li><li>When nutrition experts were given a larger bowl, they served themselves 31% more ice cream<sup>52</sup> without even being aware of it.</li><li>When participants were served M&Ms for free consumption while watching television, they were served one of three options: a medium portion in a small container, a medium portion in a large container, or a large portion in a large container. Regardless of portion size, those who ate from the larger container ate 129% more, or 199 calories<sup>53</sup>.</li></ul>

At home, you can eat from smaller plates and bowls. In a restaurant, you can request that half your meal be boxed up before they serve it. 

Exercise in the Future

While exercise definitely has its benefits, you can lose weight by watching your diet. 

In the future, you may be able to get the benefits of exercise without moving a muscle. Researchers from the Australian National University<sup>54</sup> have identified signals in the body that may help them develop a supplement that would provide the benefits of exercise to people who cannot exercise. Their research focuses on exercise benefits for the eyes, but it may set the groundwork for other “exercise pills.” After all, the retina of the eye is the window to the brain. 

Key Takeaways

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References

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About the Author

Leann Poston Headshot
Leann Poston, MD, is a licensed physician in Ohio who holds an MBA and an M.Ed. She is a medical writer and educator who researches and writes about medicine, education, and healthcare administration.
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