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Eating Less or Exercising More – Which is Best to Lose Weight?


Weight-Loss Simplified

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight – you’ve likely heard it broken down into two primary factors.  Eating less and exercising more.  Or, put another way – consuming fewer calories or increasing the number of calories burned.

Many people argue over which variable is more important.

In an article in the NY Times, Aaron Carroll points out that the television show “The Biggest Loser” focuses primarily on exercise to lose weight.  And while he applauds the motivational message of the show, He contends that eating less is a more significant factor.

Think about it this way: If an overweight man is consuming 1,000 more calories than he is burning and wants to be in energy balance, he can do it by exercising. But exercise consumes far fewer calories than many people think. Thirty minutes of jogging or swimming laps might burn off 350 calories. Many people, fat or fit, can’t keep up a strenuous 30-minute exercise regimen, day in and day out. They might exercise a few times a week, if that.

Or they could achieve the same calorie reduction by eliminating two 16-ounce sodas each day.

Good point.

Carroll also points out that the emphasis of exercise has resulted (positively) in more people exercising (from 2001-2009). Unfortunately, the number of obese individuals also increased during this time.

He cites this as evidence that focus on exercise is not solving weight problems for many.

Exercise Leads to Adaptation

It is true that adaptation occurs when we exercise. And our bodies will adapt to our energy expenditure as we become more efficient at that exercise.  For evidence of this, watch the participants in a marathon some time.  You will see literally all shapes and sizes of individuals.  Not every runner is a thin, wiry aerobic-machine as they pound along the pavement.

If surveyed, many marathoners will tell you that they lost weight initially when they began training for their run.  And they were probably hungrier – after all, they were burning more calories with the increased output of activity.  However, after several weeks their weight loss slowed and eventually plateaued.  Their bodies adapted to the activity.

This phenomena can be very frustrating for someone trying to lose weight.  They may be working very diligently but not dropping the pounds.

Of course, this begs the question as to whether the type of exercise matters.  I think it does.

Research shows that higher intensity exercise results in much different physiologic effects than lower intensity. Resistance training has been shown to increase lean body mass which increases our resting metabolic rate.  For example, if there are two individuals that weigh the same but one has a higher body composition of lean body mass (muscle) – that individual will be expected to burn more calories in the course of a day all other things being assumed equal.

Types of food matter as much as the types of exercise. Not all calories are created equal. Eating 350 calories of lettuce is not the same as eating 350 calories of milk chocolate.  They have a different effect on our physiology.

So merely looking at weight-loss from a basis of calorie expenditure or calorie consumption is a flawed premise.  It is going to vary greatly from one individual to another based on a number of factors.

That being the case, a good sustainable weight-loss program should incorporate both exercise and diet modification for success.

A meta-analysis published last year found that, in the long term, behavioural weight management programs that combine exercise with diet can lead to more sustained weight loss (three to four pounds) over a year than diet alone.

So, don’t take too narrow a focus when trying to lose weight. Truly evaluate your motives and goals for doing so. Ask yourself – is this a short term change or a lifestyle change?  Focus on more than just the number on the scale. What is going to leave you healthier in the long run?  Choose exercise that you enjoy – something that you will actually do.

And of course, consult with someone knowledgeable in this area for the support to achieve your goals.

If you’ve got questions – give us a call. We’re here to help!

SOURCE:  Carroll, Aaron E. To Lose Weight, Eating Less is Far More Important than Exercising More. Source: (Accessed online on June 16, 2015.)

Photo Credit: Image courtesy of stockimages at


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