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 consistently doing physical activity you enjoy.
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.
- 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 (think 90%/10%) and get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week doing something you enjoy. Your health (and waistline) will thank you!