Diet, or exercise: which is best for weight loss?

An important study looks into the value of diet versus exercise when it comes to shedding weight.

05 May 2016
by Meg de Jong

Looking to lose weight? Most weight loss regimes consist of two core parts: diet and exercise. Although both undeniably have their benefits both for weight loss and overall health, a recent study has shown that diet has a greater impact on losing weight.

Why diet has a greater impact on weight loss

A 2013 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology found not only that physical activity does not help you to lose weight, but that diet is the critical component. "Physical activity is crucially important for improving overall health and fitness levels, but there is limited evidence to suggest that it can blunt the surge in obesity," Drs Luke and Cooper wrote in their findings. 

They go on to explain that increased activity results in increased appetite, and that often results in eating more food. "While physical activity has many benefits, multiple lines of evidence lead to the conclusion that an increase in physical activity is offset by an increase in calorie intake, unless conscious effort is made to limit that compensatory response," they said in their paper.

Dietitian Abby Courtenay agrees with these findings. “The bottom line is that diet seems to be more important in terms of weight loss,” says Courtenay. She explains that exercise alone can result in a modest amount of weight loss, about 0.5 to 1kg per month, but that when coupled with kilojoule restriction with or without exercise, the weight loss becomes more pronounced and a person can expect to lose up to 0.5 to 1kg per week.

Exercise still has an important role

But if you’re thinking of cancelling your gym membership, think again. “Exercise is vital for body composition and health,” stresses Courtenay. “The key thus seems to be a combination of diet and regular exercise to ensure maximum weight loss, body composition and health benefits.”

She goes on to explain that people who exercise have a different body composition to those who do not exercise. “They have more muscle and less fat,” says Courtenay. “Not only will this help you fit into your clothes more comfortably (because muscle takes up less space than fat) but muscle is also metabolically active and so the more muscle you have, the more energy you burn at rest and the faster your metabolism becomes,” she says.

Moreover, exercise is important in the longer term for maintaining weight loss, according to Courtenay. “One of the most difficult things to do is keep the weight off that you have lost and it seems that those who exercise are able to maintain their lost weight more effectively than those who do not exercise,” she says.

In conclusion, it seems, that when it comes to balanced health, a combination of diet and exercise remains best, but do speak to a health professional about a safe and healthy kilojoule-reduced diet if you’re looking to shed some kilos. 

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