Diet vs. Exercise: Which is Better for Weight Loss?

We can all agree that diet and exercise results in a healthier, happier body. But what if you could only choose one? Which is better, for the long term, if you could only manage to change one aspect of your life?

Why Not Both?

Sure, we should eat healthier, and exercise – and in an ideal world that is what we would do. But our days are busy and filled with work and home obligations, not to mention wanting to spend time enjoying the nicer things in life. So, if you are intent on getting healthy, you may have to choose whether you want to focus on food or fitness. According to research, start with food first. An analysis of more than 700 weight loss studies found that people have the best results by eating healthier rather than with exercise alone.

The Practicalities of Calories

We all know the drill, in order to lose weight we need to expend more calories, right? So it comes down to either consuming fewer calories or expending more calories (aka energy) through exercise. The thing is that, when you look at the details, choosing the exercise-only route isn’t precisely worth the effort. Here’s an example: In one study, 320 post-menopausal women were instructed to not change their diets and undertake 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise five times per week, with no dietary changes. Compared to the control group, they lost 4.4kgs after one year. This calculates to about 35 hours of exercise to lose one pound. Meanwhile, you can achieve similar results by simply cutting a few calorie-prone foods from your diet and replacing them with healthier options. When it comes down to pure fat loss, reducing calories and eating healthy is the way to go.

Why Not Exercise Only?

So what if you want to continue eating what you want to eat and prefer to lose weight through exercise? Well, that might not work as well as you think it should, despite your best intentions. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. People tend to underestimate calories and overestimate expenditure – meaning you won’t see the results you expect, which can quickly become disheartening.
  2. Calories burned through exercise isn’t as much as you think. After all, you’re already up and about, so burning 500 calories by running for an hour isn’t really 500 calories, as you likely would have burned 100-200 calories just by standing there.
  3. People tend to eat more when they exercise. We all feel hungrier after exercise, and in many cases end up eating more than we burned off.

Start Basic

The key to embracing weight loss through diet, or exercise, or both, is to start small and try to be consistent. Overhauling your entire lifestyle, while feeling cathartic in the short run, is simply not maintainable in the long run for most people. Small changes are the most likely to stick – such as embracing Meatless Mondays, cutting out sneaky calories (like frozen coffee drinks) and swapping out junk food for clean, whole foods. Of course, if you want to add some exercise in as well, all the better!

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