When it comes to weight loss, the battle between diet and exercise is alive and kicking. People often attribute dropping unwanted weight to nutrition (“you lose your tummy in the kitchen”), thinking of exercise as a nice-to-have afterthought for when they’re ready to gain muscle definition and put on the finishing touches (“abs are built in the gym”). But the reality is, to be a weight loss winner you need to focus on both—cut calories from your diet by making smart food choices, and burn calories with exercise to rev up your metabolism. Just how much exercise, is still in question. However, new research in the American Journal of Physiology shows sweating more can help you reach your weight goal.
In the study, researchers split participants up into two groups. Everything was identical except for how much they worked out: One group burned 1,500 calories a week through exercise while the other burned 3,000. At the end of 12 weeks, the group that worked out more lost an average of 5.7 pounds while the other group lost an average of less than 3 pounds (an amount researchers describe as insignificant). The 3,000-calorie group also lost more fat (with their overall body-fat percentage taking a bigger hit).
The key wasn’t just time spent exercising, though. While longer sweat sessions helped, being mindful of nutrition also mattered. While everyone in the study ate more on days they exercised, the amount they compensated was pretty equal between the groups (around 1,000 extra calories a week) regardless of time spent working out. That means the group that exercised less had a total deficit of only around 500 calories each week while the second group saw a total deficit of almost 2,000 calories. When it came to weight loss, that made all the difference.
EAT SMART AND MIND YOUR CALORIES
So, in the equation that equals weight loss, where does food come in? It’s tied to people’s natural tendency to eat more after being active. “People go into exercise thinking it will be more effective than it really is,” says Kyle Flack, PhD, RD, assistant professor at University of Kentucky and lead researcher of the study. “Let’s say you work out for 30 minutes three times a week; that might only burn 800 calories total. Throw in a few ice cream sandwiches a week, and that deficit quickly becomes null. You can eat 500 calories a whole lot faster than you can burn 500 calories.”
Aside from the “treat yourself” mentality acting as a saboteur, your need to feed might also be tied to physiology. “Because of evolution, your body is designed to seek out food when you’re in a calorie deficit,” says Flack. “In our study, participants reported that they’d find themselves randomly snacking just because they wanted to eat something—that’s how powerful it is.” Fight the urge to undo the day and practice mindful, healthy eating by reaching for something better.
ADD IN EXERCISE
Looking to use exercise to lower the numbers on your scale? You might be wondering where to begin. Start with the facts: 3,500 calories equals one pound of fat. That means to lose one pound of fat, you’d have to burn 3,500 calories more a week than you consume. If you’re relying solely on exercise, without changing your diet, and you work out five days a week, that means burning 700 calories each time (which can be a lot). Measurements are dependent on factors like gender and weight (that’s where your Fitbit Aria 2 can come in handy!), but you can still do a little math on your own. For a 155-pound person, that might look something like this:
- 1 hour of high-intensity step aerobics
- 1 hour of cross-country running
- 1 hour of jumping rope
- 1 hour of vigorous swimming
SEEK A MAINTAINABLE BALANCE
If that seems like too much, don’t despair. Any amount of exercise can help with weight loss if you are also careful with what you eat. “You’re going to feel hungrier and crave food, so really pay attention to what you’re eating,” says Flack. “If you log your foods and know what you’re putting in your mouth, that goes a long way.” Good steps to get you off to a successful start include meal prepping and keeping portion control in mind. Sticking to a regular eating schedule helps, too. Avoid wonky timing and mindless snacking by setting alarms on your Fitbit device as personal reminders for when to eat.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.