By Adam Campbell
When are people going to stop asking, “Which is better for weight loss: dieting or exercise?”
A new story from US News & World Report asked this very question, and points out that both diet and exercise are important, but “if you absolutely have to choose between the two, the evidence is clear that diet plays a much bigger role in weight loss.”
From a logical standpoint, the premise is just silly: Does anyone really have to choose between doing one or the other? After all, eating less, by definition, is simply doing less of something. It’s not additive.
It could be that you feel you don’t have time to exercise, and that’s understandable. But your decision not to exercise is completely unrelated to whether or not you eat less. So let’s just quit talking about it like that, OK?
The main point that’s made in the article is that you can’t “outrun a bad diet.” This adage was popularized in the mid-2000s in order to emphasize the importance of good nutrition to go along with—not as a substitute for—a good exercise program.
And the saying is generally true, since you can eat a 1,000-calorie cheeseburger in 5 minutes, but it’d take an hour or more of intense exercise to burn that many calories. (Although you could argue that lots of high school athletes do outrun a bad diet.) This isn’t intended to suggest that exercise doesn’t matter, only that it’s easy to sabotage your calorie-burning efforts with horrible calorie-consuming habits.
However, troll around Men’s Health Facebook comments enough, and some really fit-looking guys will tell you matter-of-factly that “diet is everything” or that “it’s 90 percent diet.” I think this is well-meaning advice, but it sends the message that exercise is essentially irrelevant when it comes to weight loss. And I say well meaning because the advice usually seems to come from dudes who spend a good bit of time working out.
Here’s the other thing: Diet plays the greatest role in your weight loss efforts when your diet is lousy. If you’re overeating by 2,000 calories a day, you can move the needle on the scale a whole lot faster by simply not overeating than you can by initiating an exercise program. That doesn’t make dieting better than exercise. It means you had a really, really bad diet. And of course you should fix it.
Ideally, not overeating should be your baseline. In fact, if you have a good amount of weight to lose, don’t say, “I’m going on a diet.” Just stop overeating. Get used to that. It’ll work.
Related Article: Your Ideal Daily Eating Plan
Once it does, your progress will eventually slow, and then you can reduce calories to a greater extent, if desired. But guess what? You won’t be reducing your calories by 2,000 from baseline. It might be 500 calories, or perhaps 1,000, if you take an “extreme” approach.
But even with the latter, it’s not dramatically more than what you might burn if you also participated in a vigorous daily exercise program and a little more leisure-time walking.
That means it’s not “all diet” or even “90 percent diet.” Heck, if eating at baseline is your norm, you can lose weight by just exercising—no “dieting” required. It’s all about context, right? Why shouldn’t baseline be considered the norm, instead of something people have to diet to achieve?
And exercise is indeed integral, for a number of reasons. Men’s Health writer Lou Schuler explains why in the story Smash Fat Faster, where he investigates the role of exercise in weight loss beyond the fact that it simply burns calories. Schuler shows that when it comes to weight loss, exercise offers both physical and psychological benefits.
As for people who feel they don’t have time to exercise, I get it. But I also know this: At my company, I have colleagues who never miss a daily workout, and I have colleagues who never bother to work out at all. I can’t say that the ones who exercise are better at their jobs than those who don’t, but I do know that the gym goers have just as much going on. We’re talking about busy people with similar jobs and similar family lives.
It’s not about the time: It’s about what you want to do with your time.
Personally, when I’m tempted to skip a workout, I remind myself of this: I’ve never regretted exercising. But I always regret not exercising. All of my colleagues who exercise agree with this as well. Maybe you just have to experience it for yourself.
Which brings me back to the whole reason for this post: Let’s stop making diet and exercise an either/or proposition. As a default, if you care about your weight, you should strive to not overeat. Period. This is not optional. And if you want to optimize weight loss and your health, you should exercise regularly.
One is not better than the other: They both work. And they work even better together.