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It's Time to Stop Thinking of Exercise As the Secret to Weight Loss

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Exercise is fantastic for you, body and soul. It improves your mood better than antidepressants, makes you a more creative thinker, strengthens your bones, protects your heart, alleviates PMS, banishes insomnia, heats up your sex life, and helps you live longer. One benefit that might be overhyped, though? Weight loss. Yep, you read that right.

"Eat right and exercise" is the standard advice given to people looking to drop some pounds. But a new study from Loyola University calls this conventional wisdom into question. Researchers followed nearly 2,000 adults, ages 20 to 40, in five countries over two years. They recorded everyone's physical activity via a movement tracker worn daily, along with their weight, body fat percentage, and height. Only 44 percent of American men and 20 percent of American women met the minimum standard for physical activity, about 2.5 hours per week. Researchers found that their physical activity didn't impact their weight. In some cases, even people who were physically active gained a modest amount of weight, about 0.5 pounds per year.

This goes against everything we've been taught about exercise, right? Not necessarily, says lead author Lara R. Dugas, Ph.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. "In all the discussions of the obesity epidemic, people have become too focused on exercise and not enough on the impact of our obesogenic environment," she explains. "Physical activity won't protect you from the impact that a high-fat, high-sugar diet has on weight."

"As your activity increases, so does your appetite," she says. "This is through no fault of your own—it's your body adjusting to the metabolic demands of the exercise." She adds that it isn't sustainable for most people to exercise long enough while simultaneously dropping enough calories to lose weight. So it isn't that exercise isn't important to your weight at all—it's still the best way to keep the pounds off long-term after losing weight—but rather that diet is simply more important for weight loss.

Should you still exercise then? "It's not even up for debate—150 percent yes," Dugas says. "Exercise can promote a long and a good life, but if you're only exercising to lose weight, you may be disappointed." Plus, people who diet or exercise just to lose weight quit a lot sooner than people who make healthy changes for other reasons, according to a separate study published in Public Health Nutrition. Start shifting your motives and you might just reach your goals.

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