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What’s More Important–a Healthy Diet or Exercise?

March 06, 2016

what's more important diet or exercise

Ever heard the “eat less and exercise more” weight loss prescription?  If you’re reading this, you might have suspicions that it’s more complicated that–and you’d be right.


Even though is seems like a rational approach, then why are so many people following “the right prescription” still struggling to lose or even maintain weight? There are two main reasons:


  1. You might be neglecting your diet.


This one is the main reason many struggle to lose or maintain weight, simply by making the mistake that they can eat anything in any quantity they want all day as long as they “burn” those extra calories by exercising later.


Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Studies have found that diet plays the most important role when it comes to losing weight. If weight loss is your goal, focus ¾ of your efforts on diet and the remaining ¼ on exercise.


In order to lose weight, the bottom line is that you must create a calorie deficit (expending more calories than you’re consuming). The secret to this is choosing whole, unprocessed foods that promote health and energy and aid in weight loss.


Michael Pollan put it nicely in this piece from his book: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”


As you work to create a caloric deficit, do it within moderation. If your target calories fall below the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), your body won’t be getting the energy and nutrients it needs to complete basic functions. This means your calorie goal is way too aggressive and might need adjustment.


Aside from being detrimental to your health, decreasing your calories too much can also make it unnecessarily difficult to reach your goal, making you constantly hungry, irritable, and possibly nutrient deficient over time. It can also lead to losing more muscle and water than fat, which can slow down your metabolism.


You may check your BMR here. If you are eating below your BMR, try adjusting your weight loss goal to a more reasonable amount (one to two pounds per week is recommended). Or, consult with your health professional if you’re unsure of the safest goal for you.


Finally, eat on a regular schedule to keep you blood sugar steady throughout the day and prevent cravings and overeating. Also don’t drink your calories – focus on getting calories from foods.


  1. You might be overestimating/putting too much focus on exercise


This could mean your weight loss equation is out of balance. Even though exercise has many benefits for physical and mental health, multiple studies have found that exercise alone (without the right diet) may not be very effective for weight loss.


Many people overestimate how many calories they burn during exercise, which may easily lead to overeating. You think you burned a ton of calories, so you “allow” yourself to eat more than you actually need.


As you can see, it’s a vicious cycle, where proper balance and adjustments are needed until you find what works best for you and yields the most results. Focusing on gradual weight loss is important, otherwise weight loss can be difficult to achieve and sustain over time.


Exercise on a regular schedule and combine cardio with resistant activities in conjunction with maintaining a diet above your BMR calories. This will help you preserve muscle while working towards your weight goal.


In sum, what works for one person might not work for another. So, make gradual changes and keep track of your food and exercise using a smart app like Mealviser in order to see what works best for you. What’s your ideal “calorie budget?”