Diet versus Exercise : How Important is Each in a Program of Weight Loss?

Habitually people will answer this question by saying it’s anywhere between 70% diet and 30% exercise to 90% diet and 10% exercise. Personally I don’t believe even 90/10 is the right answer. I think it’s 100/0. Exercise contributes very little to weight loss in the short-term. Even if they enjoy using facilities similar to SWELL – Santa Barbara Athletic Club. As useful as the facilities are, exercising, in my opinion, won’t make a difference. Furthermore, it contributes practically nothing at all in the long-term.

First, let’s define our terms. I consider a successful program of weight loss to be one where a person loses their weight – and maintains their loss – for a period of five or more years. If you lose weight but gain it back, then I don’t consider that program to have been a success. However, some people might find that using something to this pre workout by Sculpt Nation might help with their weight loss.

So, my position is that one should use diet – and diet only – to control their weight. That means that I believe that a successful weight loss program is 100% about diet, and 0% about exercise. “But Mike, you’re a personal trainer,” you might be thinking. “How can you not include exercise? Aren’t you shooting yourself in the foot here? I mean, after all, it’s what you do for a living.”

First off, I don’t care if it does affect my ability to “get business.” That’s not why I do what I do. My goal is to help people achieve permanent weight loss, and I won’t sacrifice the truth in order to ensure my personal economic stability. But that being said, it really doesn’t come in to the equation, because exercise is important, but not in the way you might think.

John Berardi of Precision Nutrition (a certification I am currently taking) makes the point often in his blogs: if you don’t change how you eat, exercise will avail you nothing in your weight loss project. Myself, I lost my first 40 lbs without doing a single bit of exercise. Someone I’ve worked with in the past – a woman – lost 104 lbs without doing any exercise. Exercise simply is not necessary to get you to your goal weight. Some of you will argue that it is: you will tell me that you can’t lose weight beyond a certain point without doing exercise. Exercise is not your problem, your metabolism is. Your metabolism is compromised, and it can be fixed! I will speak more about this in a bit.

The bottom line? Use diet for weight loss, and exercise for your cardiovascular health, muscle mass maintenance and bone health. Exercise IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL for prolonging life. Women, you are more prone to osteoporosis than we men are, so you absolutely need resistance training 2 or more times per week!!! NOT CARDIO…resistance training. You need cardio as well, but resistance training for sure. This is why it’s important to make sure that you do exercise though, you can even get health monitors to help keep on your fitness.

And men…you need resistance training in order to maintain your muscle mass. Do some cardio as well, but make sure you get in at least 2 workouts per week using resistance.

Resistance training means putting resistance against a muscle across a joint in order to stress it and cause it to grow and get stronger. You can do this several ways: using Styrofoam implements in water, using bands and resistance tubes, using levered machines (either plate-loaded or selectorized – you know, the ones with pins where you can select more or less weight), or you can use freeweights. Please consult with a qualified trainer and your doctor before beginning any program of resistance and/or cardio training, however. We want to make sure you’re in top health first, and that you won’t hurt yourself by working out.

For you cardio junkies – especially you ladies – I will pass along the sage advice given in the title of chapter 3 in “The New Rules of Lifting for Women”: STEP AWAY FROM THE TREADMILL!!! Cardio is good when done in short stints 2, maybe 3 times per week. But it has an oxidizing effect on your body (translation: you age quicker), and it also destroys muscle mass, which you need as you get older to avoid slipping, falling, and breaking bones.

So what’s the evidence on all this? Men’s Health summarized a great study done by Penn State University on the benefits of resistance versus cardio training. They gave a calorie-reduced diet to a large group of overweight people, and then divided them up in to 3 groups. The first group was asked to do no exercise. The second did cardiovascular training 3x per week, and the third group did cardio and resistance training 3x per week. The result? Well I guess you’d expect that the ones who did the most exercise lost the most, right? Wrong. THEY ALL LOST ABOUT THE SAME AMOUNT OF WEIGHT, AROUND 21 LBS!!!

The one takeaway that the study authors focused on was from the effect of weight training on muscle mass. The group who did no exercise and the group who did cardio only LOST muscle mass, about 6 lbs. Of the 21 lbs they lost, only 15 of it was fat. But the lifters? They MAINTAINED their muscle mass: all 21 lbs they lost was fat.

My theory – and I don’t know if they controlled for this or not in the study because I haven’t seen the actual study – is that those who exercised more also cheated more on their “diets”. Therein lies the problem with using exercise as a method of weight loss. Generally speaking – and I include myself in this category – people who struggle with maintaining an ideal weight are not mentally, emotionally and spiritually related to food in the same way as is a slim person who has never struggled with their weight. The problem comes when I personally used exercise to control my weight: it was like a form of permission, allowing me to cheat more the more I exercised. I never really learned the new habits I needed to correctly relate myself to food. I have seen this struggle in dozens of clients over the years. They want to be able to out-exercise their cheating, and they just can’t.

When I used to work out, I would do resistance training for an hour, and cardio for an hour. That would burn anywhere between 800 and 1,000 calories. However I would all-too-often reward myself with food, and keep in mind that a Big Mac and fries eradicates all that 2-hour effort in the gym. Plus the carbs often ingested in a cheat are simple, high-glycemic, and cause the body to store fat. It is not a good strategy unless someone is rightly related to food mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Bodybuilders are an example of this. I have worked with several. They do not cheat at all in the months leading up to their competition. After the competition, they pig out, but the next day are back on a schedule, allowing themselves 2 or 3 controlled cheat meals per week. Otherwise everything else is weighed, measured and controlled. Only with these types of clients will I allow the use of cardio to reduce bodyfat. People with weight problems simply can’t handle this kind of weight loss program. It works against them, not for them.

I invite you to do an ad hoc survey of your friends. I do this all the time. Go ask all of your slim friends (the annoying ones who have never struggled with their weight) two questions:

1. Why do you eat? And
2. Why do you exercise?

The answer to 1. will inevitably be the same for most of them: they’ll tell you they eat because they have to in order to live. The answer to number 2. will surprise you: more often than not they’ll tell you they don’t exercise! Of the ones who do, they’ll inevitably say something like they do it to keep fit, to prolong their life, to keep up with their kids, stay healthy, etc.

Rarely do these people say they eat because they love food, and rarely will they say they exercise in order to manage their weight. Personally, I’ve never heard one of them give either answer, and I have asked at least 100 people these questions.

So, do you want to be slim? Then you need to think like a slim person. In general slim people who have never struggled with weight can take or leave any food alone. If you told them they had to give up their most favourite food because it was toxic to them, they could do it, and without much difficulty. Could you? If not, why not?

Slim people who have never struggled with their weight often don’t exercise, but if they do, it’s for health. Why do you exercise? Are you trying to out-exercise your poor eating habits? Good luck with that! It won’t work.

You need to learn new habits. Focus on your food for your weight loss. Consult a professional about what you should eat, if you don’t know how to figure it out for yourself. Let them guide you, then do what they tell you to do. If you do this, then any exercise you do will speed up your weight loss! But you need to focus on the food plan for weight loss. The minute you start thinking it’s ok to cheat and exercise it off, I’m betting you won’t be able to control it and it will get away on you, stalling your project.

Exercise is essential, for all the reasons I’ve cited above and one more that’s most important: I have come across more than one study that suggests it is those who exercise 2 or more times each week who maintain permanent weight loss. Stop exercising, and your project becomes threatened, because you move “out of the grove,” if you will.

Finally, for you who say that you need exercise to lose weight, I say that there is one of three things going on:

1. You are not eating as healthily as you think you are (this is the most likely culprit)
2. Your metabolism has been damaged due to all of the environmental toxins, antibiotics, pesticides, hormones etc. in our food supply (this is the second most likely culprit); or
3. Your metabolism is unfortunately naturally very slow. THIS IS VERY, VERY RARE.

There are professionals out there who can help you in all 3 areas. I’m one of them. Why not look one up today and see what they have to say? You’ve got nothing to lose, except the weight!