Another article was published
in the New York Times this week heralding diet to be more important than exercise. The title was: To Lose Weight, Eating Less Is Far More Important Than Exercising More.
An article claiming that diet is more important than exercise
makes the popular press every couple of months. It’s disheartening, because exercise isn’t exactly everyone’s favorite thing to do. What’s more, we really can’t afford to take away what motivation people do have to exercise (1).
I give every article a fair chance and read it for any new information. But, true to form, these articles are written with a slant to cause a commotion and drive popularity. And that doesn’t help anyone gain a deeper understanding of how to get healthy or lose weight. The most recent Times article is no different.
I have disagreements with almost all the points in this article and how the author supports them. But, to keep it short and hopefully keep your attention, I’ll share my 5 major counterpoints and what I want you to remember when reading articles like these:
1. The title of the article is misleading.
Someone who only reads the title may give up exercise on the spot.
2. The two, largest and most-recent studies the author cites to prove his point – don’t actually support it.
If you actually read the first study, you’d see that it concludes: “Weight loss was similar in the short-term for diet-only and combined (diet and exercise) weight management programs but in the longer-term, weight loss is increased when diet and physical activity are combined.”
The second study concludes: “Diet and Exercise can be highly recommended for long-term obesity management”.
Both of these conclusions are far from supporting the claim that diet is “far more important” than exercise for losing weight.
One small detail of both studies (left out in the NY Times) is that they were comparing exercise alone versus diet alone for weight loss.
They did say that physical activity alone is not as effective as the combination of physical activity and diet, and if you’re going to do one and not both, diet shows “moderate superiority” in terms of reducing your body size. The word moderate is key here. And, it makes sense that a greater reduction in size would occur when someone only diets- because the body loses muscle and fat. When someone only exercises they will gain muscle mass and size reduction will be less.
But we shouldn’t do either, we should do both.
3. The author drives home a point that sucks the motivation out of many people:
that exercise burns fewer calories than we would hope. And, it would take a lot of effort to exercise off, say, an extra thousand calories per day if you eat that much over your calorie requirement.
To support his point he reminds the reader that a regimen of 30 minutes of jogging or swimming laps will only burn about 350 cal, and says many people won’t have the energy or motivation to exercise that much. Anyway, he says it’s easier to skip two 16 ounce sodas each day than to exercise for 30 minutes.
While this may be true, I’d say
skip the sodas and jog or swim for 30 minutes. This will put you in a deficit of over 600 cal each day that you exercise. Then you’ll be on an even faster track to losing weight. (And if you’re eating 1,000 calories over your daily requirement , that just needs to be stopped). Don’t worry about not having enough energy to get your heart rate up for half an hour each day – by exercising more, you’ll get more energy.
4. In his argument against burning calories with exercise, the author leaves out two important points
about exercise and calorie balance:
The afterburn of cardiovascular exercise
called EPOC (exercise post oxygen consumption) is the energy the body uses over and above your normal calorie burn to fuel higher ventilation, blood circulation and body temperature for a time after exercise. It also fuels the body’s transition back to pre-exercise state – replenishing oxygen stores, resynthesizing phosphagen (ATP-PC), and removing lactate. (5)
Research shows that the higher intensities and/or more time spent during cardiovascular exercise (at or above 70% V02 Max), will translate into greater EPOC (5). EPOC is different for every individual, and for every workout, and it’s not calculated on any fitness app.
The afterburn of strength training
where calories are used for muscle growth and repair can increase resting metabolism 5% – to 9% for 72 hours afterwards. It can bump up the calorie burn by about 110 calories per day with only 2 strength training workouts per week, and it can cause up to 10 lbs of passive fat loss over the course of a year. (6)
All of my students learn how to effectively train for cardiovascular fitness and strength. I coach them to have faith in the process, and not to needlessly obsess about exact numbers of calories burned.
5. There’s a growing trend where popular news is telling people
they might want to hit the gym less and watch their diet more – as if we’re all exercising too much and forgetting about food. This article is on that bandwagon.
I don’t think we have a problem with people exercising too much
especially since 80% of the population doesn’t get the minimum recommended amount (1,2,3).
The one redeeming quality of this recommendation
is that some people do overestimate the calories they burn during exercise and then eat more than they should – sometimes as a reward – after a hard workout. I hope that’s not you. But if you think you’re at risk for this, grab an app like MyFitnessPal and log your food and exercise for a couple of weeks. It’ll help you to get on track, and stay on track.
What is undeniably true, is that if we don’t exercise
after age 20 our body starts to lose muscle. We lose 5-10 lbs of muscle every 10 years (8). This can drop your metabolism by 2-4% every 10 years, which can cause an average weight gain of 15-20 lbs every 10 years (8).
If we do nothing but eat less to lose weight,
we’ll be caught in a downward spiral of having to eat less and less every year because of a declining metabolism. I don’t know about you, but I like food too much to reduce my eating enough to keep up with that kind of drop in metabolism.
Along with increasing muscle mass and increasing metabolism, exercise does much more in terms of regulating your physiology so you can keep a healthy weight and a healthy body. Exercise improves insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, it improves brain function, increases size and number of your blood vessels and nerves, it increases the number of mitochondria (the cell’s site for metabolism) in your muscle tissue, reduces blood pressure, strengthens your heart and lungs, reduces stress and improves the mood enough for it to have an effect on depression (7,9,10).
All of that, diet can’t do….
Don’t let the media convince you not to exercise.
Exercise to maintain your youth, your quality of life, and your energy levels. Add that to cutting back on some calories in your diet if you’re looking to lose weight and be consistent with it. You won’t be disappointed.
I’m open to your comments and thoughts.
Post them in the comments section below!
By the way, if you’re looking to
create balanced habits around nutrition and exercise you may be interested in my online group course MindBodyBlast. I also offer coaching training through individual appointments. Or, you can simply subscribe to this blog for free, weekly tips on how to be healthy in a balanced way.
- CDC Statistics – http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/exercise.htm
- CDC Physical Activity Guidelines – http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/
- American College of Sports Medicine Recommendation on Quality and Quantity of Exercise Media Release- http://www.acsm.org/about-acsm/media-room/news-releases/2011/08/01/acsm-issues-new-recommendations-on-quantity-and-quality-of-exercise
- American College of Sports Medicine Recommendation on Quality and Quantity of Exercise Full Text- http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2011/07000/Quantity_and_Quality_of_Exercise_for_Developing.26.aspx
- Exercise Afterburn Research Update, Vella and Kravitz, University of New Mexico, http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/epocarticle.html
- Resting Energy Expenditure. Wayne Westcott. ACSM’s Certified News. January/March 2010 . Volume 20:1
- Health Benefits of Regular Resistance Exercise. Wayne Westcott. ACSM’s Certifited News . October/December 2010 . Volume 20:4
- Making Realistic Lifestyle Changes with Wayne Westcott. IDEA Fitness Journal. April 2014
- Sports Science Exchange #54 Muscle Adaptations to Aerobic Training http://www.gssiweb.org/Article/sse-54-muscle-adaptations-to-aerobic-training
- Exercise and Depression. Harvard Health Edu. http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-and-depression-report-excerpt
- Losing Weight May Require Some Serious Fun. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/04/losing-weight-may-require-some-serious-fun/
- To lose weight, Eating less is far more important than exercising more. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/16/upshot/to-lose-weight-eating-less-is-far-more-important-than-exercising-more.html