Written by Lisa Allen, MD
Most health and weight-loss plans include both diet and exercise. And it’s true that both are important for your health, well-being and for your body’s metabolism.
But did you know that exercise is actually the smaller part of the equation – and that exercise alone may make you hungrier than before?
When taking diet supplements to lose weight, it’s important to know which is more effective. Read on for the skinny on diet vs exercise, and how much of each is right for you.
The Big Exercise Push
“Feeling the burn” was everyone’s goal in the 80s. The mid to late 80s brought with them a focus on health, and with that, “working out” – a newer term to the general public. Old or young, office workers, stay-at-home moms, painters, singers and fashion models alike were all “feeling the burn” to tapes (remember those?), complete with sweatbands and Spandex.
The focus was on health… but the undercurrent (or, often, the overt message) was that exercise, particularly aerobics, were meant to burn calories and bring one the much-coveted slender thighs and firm bottom.
The message, both then and now, was clear: exercise burns calories and causes weight loss. But is that the whole story?
New Research, New Findings
Your workout may be burning off less than you think. Interestingly, new research is showing that diet is far more important to weight loss than exercise – and that in fact, exercising without dieting can cause a downward spiral of overeating and weight gain. Why?
Exercise builds muscle and releases energy, causing the body to work on replenishing lost stores. It’s a normal mechanism and a healthy response of the human body. But if you’re exercising without watching what you eat, you may find yourself actually packing the pounds on!
Often the error here is in believing that because one is exercising, one needn’t watch diet as closely. “I’m burning it all off,” you may say. But in reality, it takes a 3-mile run to burn off the equivalent of having avoided a tiny 2 oz. of potato chips, according to Washington School of Medicine researchers.
So Why Exercise at All?
Exercise is a component of overall health, so maintain a sensible program. These findings may provide a lightbulb moment for those who have been exercising and haven’t experienced the weight loss they desire. But does this mean you can throw exercise out the window? No.
Exercise is definitely important to your overall health – particularly your cardiovascular system (aerobics) and to maintain muscle and prevent bone loss, two conditions that increase as one ages (your best bet here is weight resistance training).
In addition, exercise does add a component to your weight loss efforts, even if it seems a rather smaller one than you previously thought. Exercise improves and slightly increases your metabolism for several hours after you stop, making your body work more efficiently, burn calories more steadily and generally act “younger” (a higher metabolism is associated with youth and not only fights fat but increases cell turnover).
How Much Exercise is Enough?
Your workout should never hurt. If you feel pain, stop. For weight loss and/or muscle building, most experts recommend at least 5 days per week of at least 30 minutes of exercise per day.
- For aerobics: you’ll know you’re aerobic (literally, “in oxygen” or “oxygenated”) if you can speak during your workout.
- For anaerobic/muscle building: You should repeat each set of reps (repetition of the same motion) on any given body part until you feel muscle exhaustion. This means the muscle will feel weak and unable to complete any more reps. At that point, move on to the next body area.
For general health/weight maintenance, 3-5 days per week of 30 minutes of exercise per day will benefit those 35 and under. After 35, you may need to increase this regimen to 4-6 days per week.
Don’t Over Exercise
Though you will want to add exercise to your health regimen no matter what your goals are, overexercising won’t help and can even be detrimental to your efforts.
Over exercising may cause muscle, joint or tendon strain or even injury (NEVER continue a movement that hurts…under any circumstances). It will also make you hungrier – ever notice how people training for a marathon seem to be able to pack in enormous quantities of food?
As with anything in life, it’s all about balance. Which leads us to…
Just How Much Should You Eat?
Eat to your comfortable (not overstuffed) satisfaction level. NEVER eat under your BMR (basic metabolic rate). That number is the minimum amount of calories your body needs simply to survive – to breathe in and out, keep your heart pumping and to keep your other organs working. Eating under your BMR can be dangerous.
You’ve heard it before but we’re going to say it again here: super-fast weight loss plans rarely work in the long run. Generally, they’re unsustainable, may lack nutrients you need and can leave you feeling lethargic and weak.
Slow and steady should always be your goal. Don’t worry about bumps in the road – your weight will vary from day to day depending upon a number of factors, few of which point to actual fat gain or loss (water retention is the main reason you fluctuate).
Your food requirements will change from day to day, too. If you’ve had an exceptionally active day – for any reason – you will probably be hungrier. Eat sensibly to fill that hunger; don’t undereat, and don’t binge. Grab a healthy meal or snack and eat until you feel just full. Don’t eat to overfullness; you can always grab another bite later if you’re still hungry.
Putting Dieting and Exercise Together
Food management and exercise really do go hand-in-hand. Don’t be overeager about relying on the one portion of the equation that seems to offer the fastest weight loss. Your body wants to receive nutrition, and it also wants to expend energy. The two should go hand-in-hand – not be a tug of war.
Remember that your ultimate goal for any health plan is to feel good. Experiment with both diet and exercise until you find a sensible, livable plan that makes you feel energized. See the bigger picture here: you want to feel great for life, not until you lose 20 pounds. As you get to know your body better, it will tell you what it needs and when. And that’s when you’ll know you really have achieved what’s best for you.