We all know 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. Or is it? Well, new research suggests it may be a touch more complicated. Some health experts suggest weight loss can be tackled by diet alone, and others that exercise is crucial for unlocking a slimmer waistline.
Exercise alone isn’t enough
The global gym industry was worth $96.7 billion in 2020 with UK fitness clubs and facilities turning over approximately £2 billion. Exercise is big business. But is it misleading?
‘We simply don’t get slimmer through exercise alone,’ says Herman Pontzer, an Associate Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University.
While researching his book, Burn: The Misunderstood Science of Metabolism, Pontzer spent a lot of time with a modern hunter-gatherer tribe, the Hadza people, in northern Tanzania. He wanted to dive deeper into human metabolism and his findings took him by surprise: 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.
Pontzer’s findings suggest that you can’t outrun a bad diet – as you’ll only burn around 3,000 calories a day no matter how much you train. Therefore, if you want to lose weight, you have to control what you eat. 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.’
Shawn M. Talbott, PhD, nutritional biochemist and former director of the University of Utah Nutrition Clinic aligns with the idea that diet is the more powerful weapon when it comes dropping a dress size. ‘As a rule of thumb, weight loss is generally 75 percent diet and 25 percent exercise. An analysis of more than 700 weight loss studies found that people see the biggest short-term results when they eat smart. On average, people who dieted without exercising for 15 weeks lost 23 pounds; the exercisers lost only six over about 21 weeks. It’s much easier to cut calories than to burn them off.’
Balance is the key
However, before you chuck your trainers away, a 2019 study by the University of Colorado revealed that the key to losing weight and keeping it off is physical activity rather than restrictive eating. The trial showed that previously overweight people most successful at keeping weight off were those who did the most daily exercise (measured in steps per day).
‘Our findings suggest that this group of successful weight-loss maintainers are consuming a similar number of calories per day as individuals with obesity but appear to avoid weight regain by compensating for this with high levels of physical activity,’ says Victoria Catenacci, an author of the study.
If you find it easier to eat a salad than pound the pavements, Pontzer’s findings will come as good news. However, a balanced approach is always best. Ideally you should eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, avoid processed food and alcohol and enjoy what you eat. Think of food as nourishment, not punishment.
Exercise on the other hand will sculpt your body, prevent you from losing muscle mass (particularly important for women age over 40) and improve your mood when those fabulous endorphins kick-in during a workout.
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