Exercise vs. Diet: Which Is More Important for Weight Loss? Your Answer Will Affect The Result

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Why Exercise-Focused Regimens are Relatively Ineffective for Weight Loss

If you’re perplexed by the information above, don’t worry. There’s a simple explanation behind it, which we’ll break up into two parts

Reason 1. Calorie expenditure through exercise is relatively small in the grand scheme of things.

In order to see why exercise-focused weight loss programs might yield low efficacy, it’s important to understand the accounting behind our daily caloric expenditure.

We spend most of our calories every day just “staying alive.” This is known as our “resting metabolic rate.” The Katch-McArdle formula, which takes into account one’s body fat percentage, is the most accurate way to calculate this number, which is equivalent to:

9.81 x your amount of non-fat mass + 370 calories per day

Let’s say you are a 200 pound man who is at 30% body fat. You expend 1,743 calories per day just staying alive. (200 x (1-.30) * 9.81 + 370 calories)

He’ll expend about 10% on top of that by what’s known as the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF): the amount of calories that he spends digesting and absorbing his dietary intake.

Add another 10% on top of that through a metabolic process known as NEAT ( Non Exercise Adaptive Thermogenesis). This is the amount of calories wasted through things such as fidgeting. Unfortunately, this can vary greatly from individual to individual.

This means that without so much as getting out of bed, our subject has already expended 2,100 calories.

Now, add another 10% for getting out of bed and going about his daily routine and he’s already burned 2,300 calories.

Adding exercise into the equation barely makes a dent in his overall caloric expenditure; most of the work is done before he puts on his running shoes. Now I am not saying that you shouldn’t exercise, but rather, it’s important to realize where a majority of your caloric expenditure is coming from. You wouldn’t take up a paper route in order to supplement a 100k/year salary, would you?

Reason 2. People are horrible estimators of calories in vs. calories out.

Take a look at another study, this one in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, in which researchers asked the subjects to exercise, estimate their caloric expenditure, and then took them to a buffet afterwards. Subjects were asked to consume the amount of food that they believed they burned in calories. (Sidenote: Where can I sign up for one of these?)

The subjects ended up eating 2-3 times the amount of calories that they burned.

The takeaway from all of this information is that calorie expenditure doesn’t count for much, and human beings are generally terrible at estimating both expenditure and intake.

How to Effectively Incorporate Diet and Exercise

To make more sense of incorporating diet with exercise, I turned to my friend and obesity expert, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff. Yoni runs one of the largest obesity clinics in Canada and has helped countless individuals lose weight with a health and fitness approach. Yoni explains:

Most people I see struggle far more with their kitchens than with their gyms. They’ll readily find 30 minutes or more a day to hit the gym, go for walks, or simply up their daily activity by parking further away and taking the stairs more often, than they will for packing a lunch, prepping ingredients, cooking dinner, or keeping a food diary. I think in part it’s because that’s what the world believes — fuelled no doubt by shows like The Biggest Loser, and by the huge amount of money the food industry is throwing at the message of ‘balancing’ energy-in with energy-out, but also because we don’t get endorphin rushes from chopping vegetables or washing tupperware.

He then goes on to elaborate.

Most folks want to lose weight and to improve health and so both gyms and kitchens are required. That said, if weight’s a primary concern, I’d never ditch the kitchen in order to find the time to exercise. Instead take the total amount of time you think you’re willing to spend in the gym, and formally dedicate at least a third of that to the kitchen. As far as optimal amounts go, a person needs to like the life they’re living if they’re going to sustain it, so what’s right and optimal for one person will be too little or too much for another. The simplest litmus test question to ask is, “could I live like this forever,” and if the answer is “no,” you’ll need to change something up.

Given that Yoni has worked with a tremendous amount of successful patients, I asked for their commonalities.

The people who are most successful are those who embrace both consistency and imperfection. Think of starting out a weight management or healthy living program like you would a martial art. You’d never expect yourself to have a black belt from the get go. Instead, you’d start with really basic moves that you’d practice over and over and over again, you’d fall down a bunch, and doing so would be an expectation, and not a disappointment. And then slowly but surely you’d get better and better at it. Same thing is true when building any skill set, including healthful living, and just like you might be able to picture a jumping spinning hook kick in your mind’s eye when you start out at your dojo, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to simply do one. So, too, with healthy living. Sure you might have a mind’s eye idea of what your healthy lifestyle should look like when you’re done, but getting there will be slow, plodding, and will include many falls.

He also shares some more great tips.

Never eat lunch out unless someone else is buying. Doing less exercise consistently is better than doing more intermittently – there are virtually no studies on diet or exercise that are long enough in duration to translate into lifelong recommendations or conclusions. Spending 2-3 minutes a day with a food diary is likely to have a bigger impact on your weight than 30 minutes a day in the gym.

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