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Why Dieting Does More Than Exercise Toward Losing Weight

Tim Boyer's picture
dieting vs exercise

A recent analysis about what studies are really telling us about weight loss is that dieting does more good than exercising does toward losing weight.


According to a recent report by CBS News, most people mistakenly believe that if they overeat that it is okay as long as they exercise enough to burn off those extra calories. This is based on an analysis of multiple studies reported by the New York Times recently that tells readers that for the majority of people, exercise is overemphasized and diet is underemphasized when it comes to helping overweight and obese people attain sustainable weight loss.

One of the failures of relying on increased activity is that while thinking of weight loss in terms of calories burned must be higher than calories consumed, for the majority of the public this is unsustainable due to time and physical limitations paired with a tendency to overestimate just how many calories are burned off to make up for that big meal or evening of snacking.

For example, one hour of the following activities (and that’s if you are pushing the intensity enough in your workout) comes to about:

• 204-314 calories burned during a walk
• 365-533 calories burned from aerobics
• 423-715 calories burned from swimming
• 606-861 calories burned from running

Unfortunately, the New York Times article—written by Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine―reveals that studies show that most people do not meet the exercise levels needed to make exercising trump dieting. In fact he points to “…a 2012 systematic review of studies that looked at how people complied with exercise programs, which showed that over time, people wound up burning less energy with exercise than predicted and also increasing their caloric intake.”

“Weight loss is about 80% diet and 20% exercise,” concurs CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York as shown in the video below:

So what were the findings of these studies that indicate that exercise for the average person just isn’t cutting the fat out? According to Dr. Carroll, they show that:

• The relationship between physical activity and fat mass in children found that being active is probably not the key determinant in whether a child is at an unhealthy weight.

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• Interventional studies have difficulty showing that a physically active person is less likely to gain excess weight than a sedentary person.

• Studies of energy balance show that total energy expenditure and physical activity levels in developing and industrialized countries are similar, making activity and exercise unlikely to be the cause of differing obesity rates.

• When you lose weight, metabolism often slows. Many people believe that exercise can counter or even reverse that trend. Research, however, shows that the resting metabolic rate in all dieters slows significantly, regardless of whether they exercise.

Of course there are exceptions to these findings as many dieters who exercise can attest to. Furthermore, this does not mean that exercise does not provide numerous other benefits as well toward a healthy body and lifestyle.

According to a follow-up piece by Dr. Carroll after readers responded to his first article—some rather heatedly―he tells readers that people who do lose weight and maintain that weight loss largely through exercise are the exception, whereas the studies are focused on the rule. In other words, the majority of the world does not consist of marathon runners; but rather, people who find exercising away their weight to be very difficult―if not impossible―and thus need their weight loss efforts redirected more strongly toward controlling their eating.

“I stand by what the evidence shows,” states Dr. Carroll in his follow-up article. “What you eat is more important to achieving a healthy weight than how much you exercise. If your goal is to lose weight, then you are more likely to get better results in the kitchen than in the gym. This should not in any way be taken to mean that there is no benefit from being physically active. There are many, many good things highly associated with exercise, and all of them matter. Weight control, unfortunately, just doesn’t seem to be one of them.”

For more about exercise and dieting, here is an informative related article about the Biggest Fat Burning Myths you have been fed.


CBS News“Which is more important for weight loss: Dieting or exercising?”

The New York Times― “To Lose Weight, Eating Less Is Far More Important Than Exercising More