Exercise versus Diet: Who Wins the Gold in the Battle of the Bulge?

Exercise versus Diet - Athletic woman with water bottle and plate of fruit

Physical activity plays a key role in the debate over exercise versus diet

When it comes to weight management, there’s a healthy competition of exercise versus diet. But in the end, both take gold.

To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn. A healthy weight loss of 1-2 lbs. per week is achieved from a daily deficit of about 500-1,000 calories. For a majority, cutting calories from our diets is going to have a much greater impact on weight than exercise. That’s because small changes to what you eat can add up to major calorie cutting, particularly in the early stages of modifying your diet. For example, eliminating 2 tbsp. of oil, a slice of cheese, and eating an English muffin instead of a large bagel will save you about 500 calories! Alternatively, to burn 500 calories without changes to your diet requires about 90 minutes of walking at a brisk 4 mph. That’s a lot to ask of a body more accustomed to riding the couch than a bike.

To maintain weight you’ve lost, physical activity plays a key role in the debate over exercise versus diet. There are two reasons for this:

  • As you lose weight you need fewer calories. For example, a woman who maintained her weight of 150 lbs. eating 1,800 calories per day might only need 1,700 calories to maintain her new weight of 130 lbs. Adding exercise can help but maintaining a healthy diet to prevent weight regain is still important. However, physical activity can offset small dietary indiscretions that even a diligent calorie counter might not be aware of. It also allows for occasional indulgences in an otherwise healthy diet, which is what a truly healthy lifestyle entails.
  • Exercise helps maintain muscle as you lose fat. Because muscle takes up less space, a person with more muscle and less fat will appear trimmer even at the same weight. Muscle also burns more calories, even at rest. Therefore, a more muscular person needs slightly more calories to maintain her weight than someone of equal weight but with less muscle. This small difference may be the deciding factor between keeping weight off versus regaining a couple of pounds.

In the end, if your goal is to lose weight, you need to cut calories. I strongly encourage you to take the time to learn new, healthy eating habits that you can maintain long-term. Zestar Diet Pilot is a great tool to help you adopt healthy, long-term eating habits with less calories. As for physical activity, go with what you already know how to do such as walking. Don’t focus on the number of calories you burn, how far you go or how fast you do it – just do it! It’s perfectly okay to start with just 10 minutes per day of physical activity. As this becomes easier, go longer or add more 10 minute spurts. Remind yourself that your ultimate goal in losing weight is to build a healthier body – one that will carry you through the rest of your life.

In honor of the 2012 Summer Olympics, I’m posing a challenge to help you increase your physical activity. Starting this week, look at the daily US medal count from the previous day. Assign 2 minutes to every gold medal, 1 minute to silver and 30 seconds to bronze. Add the minutes of physical to your day. So if the US wins 2 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze medals, you’re activity goal is 8 minutes (or 8 minutes more than your usual level). It’s a simple challenge and one I’m sure you can win. Go Team USA!


Jeannemarie Beiseigel, PhD, RD, is a registered dietitian with a doctorate in human nutrition, foods, and exercise. She’s worked with academia, government and industry and has several published research studies. She recently started her own practice as independent nutrition consultant for businesses and individuals. You can e-mail Jeannemarie at jbeiseigel@gmail.com. Read Jeannemarie's full bio.

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