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Benefits of Exercise Without Dieting

A young Black woman in black sports bra and shorts smiles while running up a flight of stairs

We live in a culture that conflates improving health and fitness with losing weight, so it’s easy to understand why we may be led to pursue the latter believing that we will receive the former.

One of the reasons I don't offer weight loss is that there is no conclusive evidence demonstrating that leanness or weight loss prevents, treats or cures health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In fact, there is even evidence that carrying more weight can actually be health-protective.

And even if weight loss was proven to help with a health condition, 95% of people who pursue weight loss are unable to achieve it or maintain it past 5 years (and up to 2/3 of those people gain even more weight than they lost). Of the people who do maintain the weight loss, it is often done through disordered exercise and eating habits. Weight-cycling (aka "yo-yo dieting") has also been shown to be far more harmful to health than just remaining at a more static, higher weight.

[Read about the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach here.]

The good news is that there is a growing body of research (like this study and this study) showing that actual health-promoting exercise (not trying to burn-up the most calories in the shorter period of time) and health-promoting nutritional practices (not dieting) can offer significant physical and mental health benefits without needing to lose a single pound. This is great news for those of us who just want to increase our fitness, feel good and get on with enjoying our lives.

Here is just a partial list of proven perks to inspire your own non-diet, weight-neutral health and fitness goals: 

Evidence-Based Benefits of Exercise Without Dieting: 

  • Elevate mood, improve cognitive function and concentration

  • Improve insulin sensitivity, cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure

  • Increase stamina, strength, suppleness, muscle mass and bone density

  • Improve performance in activities of daily living, hobbies and/or sports

  • Improve balance 

  • Increase flexibility and joint range of motion

  • Decrease risk of early death and delay of death by all causes

  • Increase libido and improve sexual function

  • Decrease stress hormones

  • Improve sleep quality

  • Reduce inflammation

  • Reduce cholesterol

  • Improve digestion

[Curious to know how often you need to exercise to make progress on your fitness goals? you can read about that here.]

Reasonable and Sustainable Health & Fitness Goals:

  • Make enjoyable movement part of your regular routine

  • Stay well hydrated

  • Add more protein, fruits and vegetables (instead of subtracting food groups)

  • Stabilize blood sugar and energy levels throughout the day 

  • Master a strength-based skill (e.g. push-ups, chin-ups, deadlift)

  • Climb a flight of stairs without getting winded

  • Carry all the groceries to the house in one trip

  • Get up from the floor with more ease

  • Decrease the risk of falling

  • Touch your toes

  • Learn a new dance style or routine

  • Hike a trail

  • Move with more agility and suppleness

  • Practice breathing more deeply and fully 

  • Expand your palate and menu to include new foods

Your fitness program should support the activities you care about most, not compete with them. I hope these lists inspire you to home-in on your meaningful why for starting a fitness program.

I'm Emiko Jaffe, a weight-neutral fitness coach. If you found this piece helpful, I invite you to subscribe to Sunday Coffee, my newsletter about fitness, culture, being more of who you are and doing more of what you love (all through a weight-neutral, non-diet lens, of course). ⁠

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