We’re all used to hearing that weight loss is a simple equation – if you burn more fuel than you take in, the scales will start to drop. It’s that straightforward. But is it possible to out-exercise a bad diet? Whilst some health experts suggest that weight loss can be tackled by diet alone, others say that exercise is crucial for unlocking a slimmer waistline. This week we explore what really matters when it comes to maintaining a healthy body.
Can you outrun a bad diet?
It’s estimated that the global gym industry is worth around $96.7 billion, with UK fitness clubs and facilities turning over approximately £2 billion. It’s no secret that the fitness industry is big business. We’re used to seeing celebrities and influencers show us the exercise routines they swear by to stay trim on our social media feeds, but can exercise alone keep us slim? Herman Pontzer, author of Burn: The Misunderstood Science of Metabolism, says not. ‘We simply don’t get slimmer through exercise alone,’ says Pontzer.
Whilst researching metabolism in northern Tanzania with the Hadza people, Pontzer found that even though the Hazda people are far more active than the average Westerner, walking miles and miles every day, they burned no more calories than we do. He discovered that there was a limit to how many calories we can burn per day – 3,000 calories, no matter how much you train. He says, ‘We need to look at exercise and diet as two different tools, with two different jobs. Yes, you need to exercise to stay healthy, but you shouldn’t expect to see big changes on the bathroom scales with that alone.’
A recent study from the University of Utah also showed that when it comes to weight loss diet is the more powerful weapon. An analysis of more than 700 weight loss studies showed that as a rule of thumb, weight loss is generally 75 percent diet and 25 percent exercise.
Too much exercise might even lead to weight gain
Some studies have shown that when it comes to exercise, overtraining can also lead to weight gain. In what has become a defining experiment at the University of Louisiana, led by Dr Timothy Church, hundreds of overweight women were put on exercise regimes for a six-month period. Some worked out for 72 minutes each week, some for 136 minutes, and some for 194. A fourth group kept to their normal daily routine with no additional exercise.
At the end of the study, there was no significant difference in weight loss between those who had exercised – some of them for several days a week – and those who hadn’t. Some of the women even gained weight.
Church identified the problem and called it “compensation”: those who exercised cancelled out the calories they had burned by eating more, generally as a form of self-reward. The post-workout pastry to celebrate a job well done – or even a few pieces of fruit to satisfy their stimulated appetites – undid their good work. In some cases, they were less physically active in their daily life as well.
Is strict dieting the answer?
The answer from many experts is no. Diets, after all, are something that most people consider to be a short-term solution. If they are too severe you will eventually fall off the wagon. Besides cutting out entire food groups or switching to restrictive eating plans raises the risk of missing out on nutrients vital to health. Indeed, strict dieting without exercise can bring its own set of problems. Cutting calories alone can lead to a loss of lean muscle mass, which is hugely important for health, your metabolism and muscle function.
Balance is key
The bottom line is that diet and exercise should go hand in hand. Exercise brings many metabolic and functional benefits, like improved blood sugar control, better blood pressure and blood fat levels, and you become stronger and fitter. However, a balanced approach is always best. Ideally you should eat a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
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