Diet or Exercise: Which Is More Important For Losing Weight?

When I joined my gym last summer, I was entitled to a one hour session with a personal trainer. As with many of these complimentary sessions, I didn’t get training suited for me personally but rather got a tour of the gym and instructions as to how to operate the equipment without harming myself or others. I explained to him that I joined the gym because I needed to lose weight and felt the exercise would help me accomplish that. The trainer told me that weight loss was comprised of about 80% diet and 20% exercise. Ruh-roh. I didn’t see this one coming. I felt it would be much easier for me to increase my activity level than to lay off the Little Debbies, but it made me curious as to just what the right balance was. Was there really a general consensus as to the right mix? And if there was, what was it?

Deciphering the diet/exercise code is not easy because everyone with access to the internet has an opinion. It’s like your, um, pie hole – everyone’s got one. Researching any topic generally has some monkey studies associated with it and this was no exception. This article pointed to a study of 18 middle-aged female rhesus monkeys whose ovaries were removed to simulate human menopause; that lovely time of life that is generally associated with weight gain. They then put them on a standard human high-fat diet (standard for us in the U.S., that is). The grease-eating menopausal monkeys were then dressed in polyester pants suits and put on a bus to the local casino. No – not really. They were allowed to eat and exercise as much or as little as they liked and were observed at length. Basically, they were given the old Chuck E. Cheese treatment; except for the head-rattling noise and cheap-o prizes.

The rare Rhesus Pieces Monkey
Photo: laszlo-photo

The conclusion was that diet mattered very little. Activity mattered quite a lot. The active monkeys were eight times more active than the lazier monkeys and it made a significant difference in how much they weighed. Even when a diet was introduced to the lazier monkeys, weight loss was minimal.

The researcher was not surprised at the lack of dieting success. Like humans, when the body senses fewer calories, it goes into a kind of survival mode and reduces the metabolic rate and activity level to compensate. His conclusion was that activity was key to weight loss.

I hate to say it, but math needs to enter the equation at some point here too. As I’m sure we all know by now, losing weight is a numbers game: more calories out than in. Each pound equals 3500 calories so that in order to lose weight, a calorie deficit must occur. This article favored an approach of diet being more essential to weight loss than exercise. While the benefits of exercise are numerous, including enhanced heart and mental health, it takes a heck of a lot of it to burn off enough calories to lose weight. Plus, it appears that we humans have a tendency to underestimate what we consume in food and overestimate what we expend in exercise. Who? Me? (Slowly puts down Little Debbie Deep Fried Éclair and Peanut Butter snack cake.)

A study cited in this second article showed that a reduced calorie program – regardless of its emphasis on fats, carbs or protein – caused weight loss in overweight adults. It made the point that food should be eaten more slowly so as to allow the food to be digested and signal your brain that you are in fact being fed; which takes about 20 minutes to register. Also, certain foods should be avoided because of their effect on certain brain chemicals which cause us to want even more of them. Care to guess which ones? Sweets, fats and salty foods – my three favorite food groups. You can still build a pyramid with just three blocks, right?

All in all, this article held that both diet and exercise are effective but placed an emphasis on diet.

And then there’s this third article which suggests that exercise may actually be adding to the obesity epidemic in this country. Their logic goes like this: Exercise stimulates hunger. Not only does it stimulate hunger but it also makes us engage in something called “compensation” – rewarding ourselves for working out by either eating more (because we’ve earned it, dammit!) or moving around less for the remainder of the day because we’ve “already exercised". They cite the Minnesota Heart Survey which reported that in 1980, 47% of the population said they got regular exercise versus 57% in 2000. And yet over that same time period, obesity rates exploded.

Ready for that post-workout donut cool-down.
Photo: slettvet

Conclusion for article #3: It’s more about what you eat and not how much you try to work it off. One suggestion they had in terms of solving this problem was to distribute our energy output more evenly throughout the day instead of just relying on one 45 to 90 minute burst, once a day at the gym.

Now that I’ve got you thoroughly confused, how do you feel about it? I know there are plenty of weight loss success stories out there who have obviously found the right balance for themselves. So how do you do it? Do you focus more on diet or exercise?

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