Every January, millions of individuals make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or eat healthier, if not both. To achieve this goal, many individuals will begin strenuous exercise programs that incorporate too much exercise too soon, leading to fitness burnout or injury. Overtraining can actually prevent you from losing weight.
As a health neuroscientist, I have been studying the brain and cognitive mechanisms underlying dietary behaviours and the role exercise plays in helping people improve their diets for over 10 years.
Energy and exercise
The truth is that you simply cannot exercise away a poor diet and expect to lose weight (if that is your goal). Humans are very good at conserving energy and will account for any calories burned through exercise by consuming more calories later in the day or by being less physically active throughout the rest of the day.
That being said, you can — and should — use exercise to help you lose weight and maintain your weight loss. But not to offset calories consumed.
If you are looking to lose weight, the only way to do it is by controlling your calorie intake. The best and most effective way of doing that is limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods — typical “junk foods” and fast-food meals. Even if you are not trying to lose weight, reducing ultra-processed food consumption is good for mental and physical health.
Regular exercise makes it easier to do this by improving the brain and cognitive processes that help us regulate junk food consumption, and by reducing stress. And the best part is, as little as 20 minutes of brisk walking is all you need to get the beneficial effects.