Like so many bees to a honeycomb, Americans have been flocking to gyms in hopes of pumping away their unwanted poundage. In 2013, health clubs across America brought in an estimated $22.4 billion, doubling their revenue over a space of 15 years. Our online world is brimming with articles and apps to help you measure weight loss and maximize exercise. By 2019, the market for fitness trackers ― examining everything from your blood oxygen level to your daily steps ― should triple in sales. Despite all of this focus on “staying active,” obesity continues to consume the globe, with nearly one in three people around the world overweight, or obese. So, what are we missing?
While ongoing advice tells us that weight loss relies on a healthy combination of diet and exercise, the truth is that what you eat may be far more important than what you do to burn off those excess inches. Although we get 100 percent of our energy from food, we only expel a small amount of calories through physical activity.
A significant number of studies are starting to show that your diet is the real key ― more so than your weekly workouts at the gym ― when it comes to weight loss and healthy weight management.
Exercise Isn’t As Effective As You Think
A growing amount of scientific evidence shows exercise, on its own, has very little impact on weight loss. A study conducted in 2011 examined previous studies and found “little evidence” that being more physically active made people less likely to gain weight. An additional study, conducted by McGill University, suggested that exercise alone was not “an effective weight loss therapy.”
Although the number of people taking part in regular physical activity across the United States has risen, this hasn’t impacted the rise of obesity in Americans across the same time period. It seems that exercise is not enough to prevent weight gain.
Working out still has other undeniable health benefits, but experts estimate that weight loss generally consists of about 75 percent dietary changes and 25 percent exercise. Exercise is great for maintaining and managing weight, though it only has a positive effect after dietary conditions are addressed.
The Math Behind Weight Loss
The widespread interest in weight loss in recent years has taught most people the basic math of how calories work: if you consume the same number of calories a day that you burn off, your weight will remain the same. If you tip the balance in either direction, you’ll begin to lose or gain pounds over time. To lose about one or two pounds per week, you need to create a calorie deficit of about 500, to 1,000 calories a day.
While it’s possible to use exercise to increase the calories you burn, it’s much easier to establish the necessary deficit by reducing your calorie intake ― as it requires an excessive amount of high-intensity exercise to burn the same amount of calories you’d lose by cutting down on unnecessary sugars. Take a standard 500ml bottle of Coca-Cola, for instance. It might take 10 minutes to drink the entire 240 calories in that bottle; you’d need to run about 2.5 miles in order to burn them off. Unless you’re a professional athlete or a fitness guru, you likely won’t be able to exercise enough to cancel out a totally restriction-free diet.
Unfortunately, people constantly overestimate the calories they burn during exercise and underestimate the calories they consume through food. A study conducted by the University of Ottawa in 2010 found that people assumed they’d burned up to four times more calories than they actually had during a workout. Perhaps more concerning: when asked to eat the equivalent calories in food afterwards, they always overshot.
Exercise Can Tempt You To Eat More
So, losing weight through exercise is far more difficult than losing weight by changing your dietary habits – but that’s not the only problem. Studies have shown that exercise struggles to drive significant weight loss because we regularly compensate for the calories burned without realizing it. Whether it’s grabbing an extra snack to replenish your energy on the way home from the gym or compensating for less time in the evening with fast food, your habits can easily counteract the benefits of even the best exercise regime.
Increasing your exercise habits also increases your appetite. While it’s great to log those extra miles on the treadmill, you’ll probably eat more to make up for the energy you’ve been using ― whether you mean to or not. Because physical activity has a direct impact on your metabolism, your body will likely signal that you need to replace your used energy with new calories, causing you to feel hungrier. Studies have found that in general, people who increase their exercise habits also increase their caloric intake. Those hours at the gym quickly become negated by extra snacks and treats.
This Doesn’t Mean You Should Ignore Exercise Completely
Don’t take this information as indication that you should ditch your workouts completely ― exercise is important, but it won’t do the job alone. As beneficial as staying active is, when weight loss is your goal, it’s your diet that really needs to change.
If you’re trying to get rid of the pounds fast, it’s smart to combine exercise and diet, rather than choosing one over the other. If you reduce your calorie intake and increase your exercise at the same time, you’ll reach the calorie deficit you need for weight loss much faster than if you practice just one or the other alone.
Exercise helps to keep you healthy in other ways: boosting cardiovascular endurance, increasing muscle strength, and even improving outcomes related to diabetes and cancer. The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate will be. When it comes to your weight goals, exercising enables you to maintain the weight loss you’ve accomplished through diet changes. Just be sure to address ― and stick to ― those dietary habits first!