I exercise, but can't lose weight... What. Gives.

Posted By David Simich  

Exercise is beneficial across multiple physical and psychological areas, including reducing blood pressure, preventing onset of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, improved quality of life, improved mental health, and generally live longer than people who do not (Armstrong, Bauman, & Davies, 2000; Conn, 2010). It is often the case that the main motivator for people to participate in exercise is to shed their weight. Sometimes however, no matter how hard someone exercises, the weight may not budge. This can be crazy frustrating, particularly if you’re half dying smashing burpees and sled runs. It can also be disheartening when you feel like you’ve done everything possible. In order to address this, it is worthwhile examining some of the psychological and physiological factors that maintain weight despite exercise.


Why does my body hold onto this weight?


Your body can hold weight for a number of reasons, I've decided to split this into two sections; physical and psychological.



One of the main mechanisms that dictate how much we weigh is largely based around the ‘set point’ theory. The set point theory states that our weight is determined by a super complex feedback system designed to keep your body weight constant (Müller, Bosy-Westphal, & Heymsfield, 2010). The set-point theory, in a nutshell, dictates that genetics play a big part in determining our overall weight, which includes our overall build, bone structure, metabolism and more! As such, the human body has a weight range that it is comfortable in maintaining. As an example, exercise may be used to reduce body weight, however, powerful hormones such as ghrelin and leptin seek to counter this, and will subsequently drive you to eat more in order to maintain the predisposed body weight (Müller, Bosy-Westphal, & Heymsfield, 2010). While exercise itself can help to increase activity (and therefore energy expenditure), it may actually reduce overall daily activity.


A meta-analysis (Silva, et al., 2018) examined the impact exercise (and diet) had on overall daily physical activity. What they found was that physical activity that was not exercise, e.g., fidgeting, maintaining posture etc. (i.e., non-exercise physical activity (NEPA), and non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)) may actually reduce throughout the day after an exercise session. As such, the overall activity throughout the day can reduce and therefore result in less-than-expected weight loss. What this means is that people who do one hard exercise session, may actually move less over the course of the day (due to feeling tired and fatigued) and therefore burn less energy. It is important to note that this was not always the case. While exercise and physical activity is important to consider, so is the food we decide to eat.




Exercise itself could influence how and what we eat. For example, exercise can give way to snacking on foods that are high in calories (think donuts, chocolate etc.) (King, et al., 2007). In particular, snacking after exercise may be problematic and can be driven by psychological factors as calorie dense food choices can have a perceived heightened reward. This means that people may be more likely to reach for higher calorie dense foods than any other food after exercise. The question then is, why is this the case?


Well, it is likely that we justify our food choices to ourselves. For example, we may say to ourselves that we can eat our high calorie food choice due to the exercise that we have/will be doing. As such, we either consider that our food choices are neutralised by the exercise, or that our food choices are a reward for doing the exercise (Knäuper, Rabiau, Cohen, & Patriciu, 2004). What’s more, it is also important to consider that, generally, we’re not all that good at estimating the amount of calories we consume, and that this inaccuracy in estimating energy content in food can result in weight gain (Block, et al., 2013; Corby, et al., 2007). So, not only are we inclined to go for high calorie foods after exercise, we may also have difficulty estimating how much calories we eat! As you can see, this makes it awfully difficult in reducing body weight.


That's all well and good guy, but what can I do about it?


It can seem a bit overwhelming with all these challenges laid out in front of us. However, there a number of strategies that we can use to help.


1.   Observe the amount of physical activity that is not related to your actual exercise.

Do you find that you go up and down the stairs more or less after you exercise? Do you find that you walk less and prefer to use the car after a killer leg day? These are some conscious activities that you may be aware of. What’s even more difficult is noticing the unconscious movements that can contribute to your overall daily activity. For example, do you fidget or talk less? It can even extend to less keyboard typing or even less blinking! Therefore, it is worthwhile evaluating these physical activity patterns and adjust accordingly to ensure that your overall activity levels remain higher throughout the day.


2. Challenge some of our justifications that are related to our overconsumption of high calorie foods.

Are you more likely to eat some of these foods after exercise? If this is the case, reflect and challenge your thought patterns during this time and see if you can replace high calorie/heightened reward foods, with low calorie/heightened reward foods. For example, you may find a lower calorie alternative food source that hightens all the desired taste sensations (e.g., sour, sweet, hot, cold, bitter etc.) in the same way as the higher calorie foods.


3.   Have some understanding of calories in food, and what it requires to burn that energy.

While we do not advocate strict calorie counting at Dualist, it is more about having an awareness of the energy content of the foods you eat. Sometimes it can be shocking to know how long it takes to use the energy of your favourite foods! A novel way this can be achieved is through a burpee calculator. One burpee calculator, for instance, indicated that if a person weighed 82kg and drunk one can of soda/cool drink, a total of 140 burpees are required to burn this energy. That’s a lot of burpees!


4.  Lastly, and perhaps the most important strategy to consider, is to reconsider your evaluation of your ideal body weight and shape.

For instance, having a prominent ‘six pack’ does not provide greater health outcomes (Campos, et al., 2005). As discussed above, shifting away from the body’s set point can be a difficult task, and can often result in a preoccupation in food, exercise, and body weight and shape. As a consequence of this preoccupation and focus, it can result in body dissatisfaction and negative body image which can impact social and romantic relationships, work, study, life enjoyment and satisfaction, and can foster secrecy and shame. In addition, one study (Gonçalves & Gomes, 2012) showed that participants doing exercise for only weight and shape reasons had greater eating problems. In this instance, it might be worth considering developing self-compassion and positive body satisfaction in order to start, at the very least, being ok with the body you have. As mentioned earlier, exercise does so much more for your body than losing extra kilograms, and that focussing only on weight may sabotage your efforts! Body satisfaction is a big topic in itself, so stay tuned for an article about this in the future!

Anything else?


I hope the above information helps, and please let us know if any or all of the above has worked for you! Also, if you have any burning questions in anything exercise and psychology related, let us know at info@Dualist.com.au and we may turn it into a future article! If you would like further assistance for this or other psychology/exercise issues, please Contact us!


David Simich is the principal exercise psychological specialist at Dualist. He is a fully registered psychologist and qualified personal trainer. Additionally, David is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society and World Obesity, and is internationally recognised for his obesity management expertise through the Strategic Centre for Obesity Professional Education. David’s qualifications consist of a Master in Applied Psychology (Murdoch University) and a Master in Exercise Science (University of Western Australia). 



Armstrong, T., Bauman, A., & Davies, J. (2000). Physical activity patterns of Australian adults results of the 1999 National Physical Activity Survey. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.


Block, J. P., Condon, S. K., Kleinman, K., Mullen, J., Linakis, S., Rifas-Shiman, S., & Gillman, M. W. (2013). Consumers’ estimation of calorie content at fast food restaurants: cross sectional observation study. British Medical Journal, 346, 1-10.


Campos, P., Saguy, A., Ernsberger, P., Oliver, E., & Gaesser, G. (2005). The epidemiology of overweight and obesity: public health crisis or moral panic? International Journal of Epidemiology, 35, 55-60.


Conn, V. S. (2010). Anxiety outcomes after physical activity interventions: meta-analysis findings. Nursing Research, 59(3), 224 – 231.


Corby, K. M., Anton, S. D., York-Crowe, E., Heilbronn, L. K., VanSkiver, C., Redman, L. M., Greenway, F. L., Ravussin, E., & Williamson, D. A. (2007). Empirical evaluation of the ability to learn a calorie counting system and estimate portion size and food intake. British Journal of Nutrition, 98, 439-444.


Finlayson, G., Bryant, E., Blundell, J. A., & King, N. A. (2009). Acute compensatory eating following exercise is associated with implicit hedonic wanting for food.  Physiol Behav, 97(1), 62-67.


Gonçalves, S., & Gomes, A. R. (2012). Exercising for weight and shape reasons vs. health control reasons: the impact on eating disturbance and psychological functioning. Eating Behaviors, 13(2), 127-130.


King, N., Caudwell, P., Hopkins, M., Byrne, N., Colley, R., Hills, A., Stubbs, J., & Blundell, J. (2007). Metabolic and behavioral compensatory responses to exercise interventions: Barriers to weight loss. Obesity, 15, 1373–1383.


Knäuper, B.; Rabiau, M.; Cohen, O.; Patriciu, N. Compensatory health beliefs: Scale development and psychometric properties. Psychol. Health, 19, 607–624.


Müller, M. J., Bosy-Westphal, A., & Heymsfield, S. B. (2010). Is there evidence for a set point that regulates human body weight? F1000 Medicine Reports, 2(59).


Silva, A. M., Judice, P. B., Carraca, E. V., King, N., Teixeira, P. J., & Sardinha, L. B. (2018). What is the effect of diet and/or exercise interventions on behavioural compensation in non-exercise physical activity and related energy expenditure of free-living adults? A systematic review. British Journal of Nutrition, 119, 1327-1345.