When it comes to losing weight, it's all about diet and exercise, right? It doesn't have to be.
A new study published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism adds to a growing body of research that shows that while both markedly improve overall health, they do not have an equal effect on weight loss.
"In all the discussions of the obesity epidemic, people have become too focused on exercise," says Lara R. Dugas, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine and author of a separate study that had similar findings. "Physical activity won't protect you from the impact that a high-fat, high-sugar diet has on weight," she says.
Now, no one is saying you shouldn't exercise, simply that if you're looking to drop some pounds, you don't absolutely have to devote tons of time and effort to exercise. "To the question of should you exercise, the answer is 150 percent yes, that's not even up for debate," Dugas says. "Exercise can promote a long and a good life. The message here is that if you're exercising only to lose weight, you may be disappointed."
So, yeah, you don't always have to exercise to lose weight. And for those of us who are trying to lose weight without the gym—whether because of a time-crunched schedule or injury—that's important.
But how do you actually pull it off? Learn how to lose weight without exercise from five women who successfully shed pounds sans the gym:
1. "I IMPROVED MY SLEEP"
Charlene learned the importance of taking care of her mental health as well as her physical health when she recently lost 9 kilograms. "I've been actively working on self-care to reduce anxiety as well as manage stress and periods of depression. Part of this self-care includes retraining my brain to reduce insomnia and increase sleep so I'm getting enough every night," she explains.
What the experts say: "Sleeping at least seven hours daily is just as important for weight loss as getting the right amount of calories. Insufficient sleep leads to elevated levels of stress hormones, causing weight gain as well as increased hunger," says Robert Ziltzer, an obesity-medicine specialist at the Scottsdale Weight Loss Centre.
2. "I GOT A DIAGNOSIS"
Sometimes a sudden weight gain or inability to lose weight isn't from overindulging on pizza and cake but from a medical cause. Such was the case for Christa.
"Several years ago I rapidly gained about 9 kilograms, it was horrible," she says. "I suffered for months trying to lose weight before deciding to see my doctor. It turns out I have Hashimoto’s, a thyroid disease."
The illness lowered her thyroid function which explained the weight gain. After getting on the proper medications to manage it, she's been able to slowly lose the weight. She's done this by counting calories and making healthier choices, but due to a busy job and the effects of the Hashimoto's on her energy levels she hasn't been able to exercise much. "It's taken me a year and a half of treatment, patience, and trying to treat my body right, but it’s worth it because I feel so much better," she says.
What the experts say: "There are many medical factors that influence weight gain and weight loss, such as sex hormones, liver function, insulin, gut bacteria, and, yes, thyroid function," Ziltzer says. Talk to your doc if you suspect an underlying health concern.
3. "I CUT CARBOHYDRATES"
Low-carb diets are having a serious moment, but for Emma, they didn't go quite far enough. In November of this year she decided to go "full keto" (meaning ketogenic, the process by which the body uses stored fat for energy instead of glycogen). "My diet consists mostly of fat, with some protein, and I aim to eat close to zero carbs per day," she says. "I really don't exercise, and its typical for keto people to not need to exercise for weight control. I try to stay active, but I don't go out of my way to work out." While it may sound extreme to some, she's seen amazing results, losing 20 kilograms in a year, and 5 kilograms the first month.
What the experts say: While Ziltzer doesn't necessarily advise cutting out all carbs, recent research published in the journal Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews does show that the keto diet might burn 10 times more fat than other diets.
4. "I TRACK MY CALORIES WITH AN APP"
When Megan first started trying to lose weight, she did it by hiring a personal trainer. While she did learn a lot about working out, she says it didn't help with weight loss: "I'd go home from workouts absolutely starving and then eat more than what I'd burned at the gym." So she turned to tracking her calories using the MyFitnessPal app. This helped her start losing weight steadily, culminating in a 18 kilogram weight loss over the past 18 months, despite being out of the gym and unable to workout since April, due to a health condition.
What the experts say: "Weight loss requires getting complete nutrition with fewer calories than you burn," Ziltzer says. While you can create a caloric deficit with exercise, you can also achieve it through cutting calories. And since most women have little to no idea how many calories they eat per day, tracking is a great place to start.
5. "I EAT WHOLE FOODS"
Shannon dropped seven kilograms in five weeks by emphasising eating whole, unprocessed foods. "For me, it's all about eating real food; proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and I save 100 to 200 calories per day for a treat so I don't feel deprived," she says. "I'm a proponent of regular exercise, but due to some major life changes, I've gotten out of the habit. Yet my weight loss has still been successful without exercising."
What the experts say: Focusing on whole foods is an incredibly simple way to automatically cut calories while also increasing your vitamin and mineral intake, both of which can help support healthy weight loss, Ziltzer says. "Diets high in processed carbs will lead to weight gain, while diets high in fibre and protein will contribute to weight loss," he says. "Stick to proteins such as chicken, lean meats, fish and shellfish, and lots of veggies in order to see maximum results."
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US