Losing weight and staying healthy seems simple enough: eat less and be more active. However, while it is easy enough to say, actually living a healthy lifestyle can be far more complicated and difficult. Structuring your daily life around diet and fitness while still maintaining all those other activities that you want to or need to do is a never-ending challenge, even for people who are already in great shape. Therefore, it is important to understand the effectiveness of both exercise and dieting in losing weight and maintaining good health.
We can always exercise more and we can always eat healthier foods. There is an endless list of things that we can stop doing or start doing that will lead to a healthier lifestyle: eat more vegetables, take a bike to work, drink less alcohol and so on. However, these straightforward lists do not account the for the simple fact that we all have a limited amount of time, money, energy and willpower to spend each day. Any health guide that fails to account for this fact merely makes us feel bad, as if we should be doing more, but are simply too weak.
In the vast scientific literature behind dieting, exercise and health, there is no evidence of a perfect way to lose weight and stay healthy. Looking at a huge range of diets and exercise regimens, the deciding factor in the end is always the drive of the individuals to achieve a healthier lifestyle. What really matters when it comes to losing weight and staying healthy is making practical lifestyle choices that you can realistically maintain.
Calories and Health
At the most basic level, weight loss and gain revolves around your consumption and expenditure of calories. Therefore, any discussion of weight loss and health first requires a solid understanding of the central role of calories in human health.
In the simplest terms, you will lose weight when you consume less calories than you expend. To lose a pound of fat, there must be a deficit of 3,500 calories, which can be achieved either by consuming 3,500 calories less or burning 3,500 calories more.
For example, if a 200 pound man is aiming to lose one pound per week, then he needs to either run about 3.5 miles per day or cut back on 500 calories worth of food per day. In theory, both methods should achieve the same results.
If simply cutting back on 500 calories per day sounds much easier than going for a 3.5 mile jog, then you are beginning to see why good eating habits are an easier and more practical road to weight loss and healthy living than exercise.
Exercise and Weight Loss
The advantage of dieting over exercise exists for two main reasons.
The first reason is that exercise is actually relatively inefficient at burning additional calories compared to the amount of calories that the body burns naturally just to stay alive.
You body has a natural “resting metabolic rate”, which is the rate that you will burn calories with absolutely no activity beyond the body’s natural functions. This rate is calculated as 370 calories plus 9.81 times the amount of non-fat weight in your body. So the 200 pound man from the previous example with 30% body fat will expend 1,743 calories just by being alive.
On top of that base rate, he will also burn additional calories from natural movements, such as fidgeting, and the actual act of digesting the food that he has eaten. Add on the calories burnt from even the laziest of daily routines, and the man will have burnt 2,300 calories in a day without touching a treadmill or doing a single push-up.
The addition of exercise to this base rate will barely make a difference compared to how much the man burns simply from doing his regular routine. Therefore, while exercise can help, there is a hard limit on how many additional calories you can burn through in a day with exercise, and it is small compared to the amount that you will naturally burn and the amount that you can consume through a poor diet, which leads us to the second reason why exercise is less effective than dieting.
The second reason stems from our poor ability to guess and track our daily caloric intake. People assume that because they are exercising, they are free to eat more or less how they want. People without a regimented diet program tend to vastly overestimate the amount of calories that they are burning while underestimating the amount that they are taking in from food.
Some studies have shown that people who only exercise without a diet plan end up consuming an additional 2-3 times as many calories as they burned through exercise compared to when they followed a strict dietary regimen.
A Healthy Diet Is Key, But Exercise Is an Important Part of Any Healthy Lifestyle
Due to the relative inefficiency of exercise in creating a caloric deficit compared to dieting, it is far more important to spend your time and effort ensuring that you have a solid diet in place. However, exercise is an important part of any healthy lifestyle. While exercise may only make a small contribution to creating a practical caloric deficit that you can stick to, it does contribute dramatically to other areas of health, as well as your overall lifestyle, which has a virtuous cycle with your ability to maintain a healthy diet.