What is more important for weight loss – diet or exercise?
This is one of the most common weight loss questions I get, and the answer like most specific questions about diet and weight is a little bit more complicated than a straight answer declaring one or the other more important. And while ultimately does come down to balance, this is also the right balance for you, which is where the different approaches work for different people.
Whenever the primary goal is to lose kilos on the scales as quickly as possible, food is generally more important than exercise, especially when you have more than 5kg to lose. The reason for this is that whenever calorie intake is dropped significantly, and adhered to, for example a couple of weeks following a strict 1200-1400 calorie plan, anyone with 5kg or more to lose will generally drop a couple of kilos relatively easily, with minimal exercise. This is because this is the lowest number of calories the body can function on, without following an intermittent fasting regime, or a ketogenic diet and strip the kilos. Adding extra exercise on a diet plan that is already heavily restricted will only act to slow weight loss for some as the discrepancy between calorie intake and output becomes too great eg burning 2000 calories but only taking in 1200.
Now this change once someone had lost anywhere between 5-10kgs. Once this amount of weight is lost following calorie restriction, weight loss often slows. This is because weight loss has resulted in the cells becoming more efficient and actually needing more calories. It may also mean, that as much extra fat has been easily lost before exercise will become more important in the equation to increase metabolic rate – by wither building muscle tissue, or by training it to work more efficiently. For this group, while calorie restriction may be still important, the restriction will be less, meaning dieters need 1400-1600 calories but also need to exercise regularly to continue weight loss.
The group of people for whom exercise will be important from the beginning of their weight loss journey are those who are particularly sedentary in their lives – office workers, call centre staff, drivers – those who routinely move less than 2000-3000 steps each day. In my experience no one will lose weight if they are moving this little and as such, these individuals will need to ramp up their movement to at least 10000 steps a day to achieve weight loss, even on a calorie restricted diet.
And then there are those of us who are already fit and have only a few kilos to lose. For those individuals it may actually be exercise that is more important, either the type or the volume may need to be adjusted to see results on the scales. For someone who already restricts calories and trains every day, they may actually need a break from such intense training to allow their body to drop some kilos. On the other hand, someone who only does cardio, may need a resistance or weight program to increase metabolic rate and see changes on the scales.
As you can see, there is not a one size fits all model. Rather most of us need to eat less, most of us need to move more and then there are those high achievers who may simply need to change things around to get the results they are looking for. Every one of us is different and as such, as they say, its complicated.