It’s a question that plagues many people. A lot of people think they can’t lose weight without dieting, while others think they can’t lose weight without exercising. Some people even think they have to do both! But what you may not know is that there are many ways to help you lose weight without having to pick between dieting or exercising. In this article, we’ll talk about some of these methods, as well as how they can benefit your health.
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Diet Vs Exercise For Weight Loss
You’ve probably heard that “you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.”
While this saying has some merit, you may wonder whether diet or exercise is more important for health goals like weight loss or improved heart health.
With endless health interventions out there, ranging from the 80/20 rule to exercise-free diets, it can be hard to gauge if you should prioritize diet or exercise — or if the answer lies somewhere in between.
This article tells you the benefits of exercise and diet, and if one is more important for your health than the other.
To lose weight you must be in a calorie deficit, meaning your body expends more calories than you consume. This can be achieved by eating and drinking fewer calories, burning more calories from physical activity, or a combination of the two (1Trusted Source).
Benefits of diet
While both diet and exercise are important for weight loss, it’s generally easier to manage your calorie intake by modifying your diet than it is to burn significantly more calories through exercise.
This may be why the 80/20 rule has become popular, as it states that weight loss is the result of 80% diet and 20% exercise.
For example, if you’re aiming for a daily calorie deficit of 500 calories, you could consume 400 fewer calories (80%) by eating lower calorie dishes, smaller portion sizes, and fewer snacks. Then, you only need to burn 100 calories (20%) from exercise.
For many people, this is easier than trying to burn 500 calories each day from exercise. Burning this many calories every day requires a significant amount of movement — plus, it’s time-consuming, taxing on the body, and rarely sustainable.
To illustrate, a person who weighs 154 pounds (70 kg) would need to cycle on an exercise bike for 1 hour at moderate intensity to burn 525 calories. Meanwhile, they could cut out 520 calories by skipping out on a venti Green Tea Frappuccino from Starbucks (2Trusted Source, 3).
An easy way to manage calorie intake and promote weight loss without counting calories is to focus on eating whole, minimally processed foods that are high in fiber, protein, and healthy fats (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).
Benefits of exercise
There are many ways that exercise supports weight loss.
Strength training helps preserve and build muscle mass, which can increase your metabolic rate over time so your body burns more calories, even at rest. Furthermore, a single strength training session can increase your metabolic rate for up to 72 hours (6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
Aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, or cycling — especially at a low to moderate intensity for 30 minutes or longer — can burn a significant number of calories in a single session and help promote a calorie deficit (10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source, 12Trusted Source).
Regular exercise may also help manage hunger by regulating your hunger hormones. This may help prevent overeating and excess snacking. That being said, excessive exercise may increase appetite as well as injury risk, so moderation is best (13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source, 15Trusted Source, 16Trusted Source).
Finally, by burning extra calories and increasing your metabolic rate, regular physical activity allows you to have more flexibility with your diet, making weight loss more enjoyable and less restrictive (17Trusted Source).
Recommendation: Combination of diet and exercise
Although the 80/20 rule is a helpful guideline, you don’t have to follow it precisely. Instead, focus on making positive changes to your diet and exercise routine that work for you.
For instance, you may prefer achieving your daily calorie deficit 50% from diet and 50% from exercise. This means you’ll spend more time and energy exercising — but in return, you won’t need to limit your food intake as much.
The key for healthy, long-term weight loss and management is to use both diet and exercise (5Trusted Source).
In fact, one review showed that combining modest calorie restriction and exercise was the best way to achieve significant weight loss. In some cases, combining the two led to over five times more lost weight compared with using exercise alone (18Trusted Source).
Similarly, another review found that weight loss programs including both diet and exercise components had significantly greater weight loss results than interventions based on changes to either diet or exercise alone (19Trusted Source).
Ultimately, combining dietary changes and regular exercise can help you achieve more meaningful and sustainable weight loss in the long term.
While it may be easier to manage how many calories you consume, regular exercise helps preserve lean muscle and burn additional calories. Therefore, both diet and exercise are important for weight loss, and combining the two will optimize results.
Both exercise and diet play significant roles in heart health.
Benefits of diet
The foods we eat can support or hinder heart health.
The dietary patterns associated with reduced heart disease risk are centered around minimally processed vegetables, fruit, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean animal and plant-based proteins while being low in sodium (20Trusted Source, 21Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source).
For example, the well-established Mediterranean diet promotes heart health. It’s high in healthy unsaturated fats from olive oil, fish, and nuts, dietary fiber from whole grains and vegetables, and antioxidants that help fight harmful molecules called free radicals (24Trusted Source, 25Trusted Source, 26Trusted Source, 27Trusted Source).
Plus, it contains limited amounts of saturated fats and added sugars due to its focus on fresh, minimally processed foods (24Trusted Source, 25Trusted Source, 26Trusted Source, 27Trusted Source).
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is another evidence-based eating style similar to the Mediterranean diet.
It encourages less sodium and more potassium and fiber by prioritizing whole, minimally processed foods like vegetables, fruit, and whole grains (27Trusted Source, 28Trusted Source, 29Trusted Source, 30Trusted Source).
Diets high in saturated fats, sodium, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates from processed and red meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods, and highly processed snack foods like chips are linked with a higher risk of heart disease (27Trusted Source, 31Trusted Source).
Benefits of exercise
Numerous studies have shown that exercise can help lower your risk of heart disease, decrease blood pressure and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, increase your heart’s size and strength, and improve cardiorespiratory fitness (32Trusted Source, 33Trusted Source, 34Trusted Source).
Even if you don’t lose weight, you may experience these benefits when exercising regularly.
Moderate to high intensity cardio exercise strengthens the heart, allowing it to push more blood into your body with each heartbeat. This decreases the amount of stress on the heart and arteries, which lowers the risk of heart disease (32Trusted Source, 33Trusted Source, 34Trusted Source).
What’s more, regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes — which is strongly linked to heart disease — by improving insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control (32Trusted Source, 33Trusted Source, 34Trusted Source).
General recommendations include getting either 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, 75 minutes of high intensity exercise, or a combination of the two each week for optimal heart health (32Trusted Source).
Even a low intensity aerobic activity such as walking may reduce your heart disease risk (32Trusted Source).
Keep in mind that if you have heart disease or another chronic condition, you should speak with your healthcare professional before starting a new exercise program.
Recommendation: Combination of diet and exercise
Combining a nutritious diet with regular physical activity is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of heart disease (35Trusted Source, 36Trusted Source, 37Trusted Source, 38Trusted Source).
Other lifestyle changes that improve your heart health include quitting smoking, limiting or eliminating alcohol, maintaining a weight that is healthy for your body, and managing stress (38Trusted Source, 39Trusted Source, 40Trusted Source, 41Trusted Source).
Consuming a minimally processed, whole-food diet rich in healthy fats, fiber, and lean protein is linked to better heart health. Along with this, regular exercise keeps your heart stronger and reduces certain risk factors for heart disease.
Other facets of health
Diet and exercise can play important roles in other areas of your health, too.
To build muscle, you need to do resistance training with progressive overload and eat enough protein throughout the day.
Progressive overload involves gradually increasing exercise volume and load — through higher weight, more sets, or more reps — to stress the muscles (41Trusted Source, 42Trusted Source).
If you don’t challenge your muscles through resistance training, you won’t build muscles simply by eating a high protein diet. Likewise, if you do engage in strength training exercise but don’t consume enough protein, it will be difficult to gain muscle (41Trusted Source, 42Trusted Source, 43Trusted Source).
Therefore, both diet and exercise are important for building muscle.
A nutritious diet rich in healthy fats, fiber, probiotics, vegetables, and fruit is associated with improved mental well-being and a lower risk of anxiety and depression (44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source, 46Trusted Source, 47Trusted Source).
Further, low levels of certain nutrients including zinc, vitamins D and B12, and omega-3 fats are linked with worsened mental health (44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source, 46Trusted Source, 47Trusted Source).
Exercise can also provide both immediate and long-term benefits to mental health. It promotes the release of mood-boosting endorphins — such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine — that temporarily improve your mood and stress levels (48Trusted Source, 49Trusted Source).
Additionally, regular exercise is associated with lower rates of moderate depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions (50Trusted Source, 51Trusted Source, 52Trusted Source, 53Trusted Source).
In addition to any treatment recommended to you by your healthcare professional, regular exercise and a nutritious diet may improve your mental well-being.
Both diet and exercise have been shown to promote muscle building and improve mental health.
The bottom line
Diet and exercise are both important for optimal health.
Achieving a calorie deficit through diet modifications is key for weight loss, while exercise provides many benefits that help sustain your results.
Further, both exercise and diet can help reduce heart disease risk, build muscle, and improve your mental health.
To promote good overall health, it’s best to consume a minimally processed, whole-food diet full of healthy fats, fiber, and lean protein. Also, aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each week.
While you may be tempted to pick one over the other, diet and exercise work hand in hand, and combining both will optimize health and quality of life.
What More Important Diet Or Exercise For Weight Loss
The short answer is both. Nutrition might hold a bit more weight when it comes to helping you shed pounds, but exercise also plays an essential role in both losing weight and overall health.
In a perfect world, you’ll find a way to incorporate both by eating healthy most of the time and doing physical activity you enjoy. Don’t worry; your coaching team is here to help.
Being proactive about diet AND exercise is important for the best possible weight-loss results.
Diet vs Exercise for Weight Loss: Nine Considerations
- Being mindful of portion sizes and calories is necessary for successful weight loss. Still, if you only reduce your calorie intake (without exercising), you’re likely to lose muscle as well as fat. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, so increasing your muscle mass helps you burn more calories. This is one way strength training can specifically help with fat loss. (It’s actually better to think in terms of “fat loss” rather than “weight loss.”)
- It may be tempting to drastically cut back on calories, but this approach can quickly backfire. Extreme calorie restriction can cause muscle loss and also slows down your metabolism. Your body will switch into “starvation mode” by conserving stored energy (e.g. fat) instead of burning it. This can leave you short on energy and more likely to skip your workouts. As counterintuitive as it sounds, taking in too few calories can hinder your weight loss efforts just as much as over-eating. Success lies in finding the right balance for your body.
- Eating fewer calories than your body needs (even while you’re trying to lose weight) can also lower your leptin levels (a.k.a. the “satiety” hormone). Leptin helps inhibit hunger and regulate energy balance, so when leptin levels decrease, your appetite increases.
- As a general rule, you need to use more calories than you eat to lose weight. Making regular exercise a part of your fat-loss equation helps you create a “calorie deficit” that can help you lose fat without feeling deprived.
- You can’t “out-exercise” a poor-quality diet or one that’s too high in calories. While getting lots of exercise is great, all the exercise in the world won’t give you license to eat without limits and will have little impact if you’re not eating whole foods and paying attention to portion size.
- Most people underestimate just how much exercise it takes to “burn off” an indulgent meal. Unless you’re a professional athlete, odds are you’re not using enough calories to lose weight without making some adjustments to your diet. Coach Sara offers this common example: A bacon cheeseburger and fries have over 2,300 calories. If you take an hour walk after your meal, you’ll burn about 250-300 calories. That leaves you with a whopping 2,000 calorie surplus.
- Be sure to include both cardiovascular and strength training in your fitness routine. Cardiovascular exercise (i.e. brisk walking, running, biking, swimming, basketball, tennis, etc.) helps you burn calories, increase your stamina and keep your heart healthy. Strength training (i.e. lifting weights, using resistance bands, yoga, Pilates, squats, pushups, lunges, sit-ups, planks, etc.) builds muscle mass to rev up your metabolism and help you burn more calories (even while you’re sleeping). Strength training also supports healthy blood sugar levels, insulin sensitivity, and bone health.
- Strength training can help you over a weight-loss plateau. When you shed extra pounds, you need fewer calories to maintain your new weight. So, in addition to tweaking your diet to cut extra calories, upping your exercise can help you continue to drop unwanted weight and avoid plateaus.
- Even if you have a fantastic fitness routine (i.e. a good ratio of cardiovascular and strength training in terms of frequency, intensity, and variety), eating poor quality foods means your exercise performance will suffer. You’ll have less energy and motivation and won’t benefit as much from your workouts. On the flip side, exercising tends to increase your desire to eat well, which is a clear win-win!
We know, you wanted a simple answer! There are rarely one-size-fits-all-approach answers when it comes to health and wellness (well, we can confidently say that everyone should avoid Twinkies).
Life is all about balance. In this case, strive to eat a balanced diet with reasonable portions most of the time and get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week doing something you enjoy. Your health (and waistline) will thank you!