Which is Better for Losing Weight: Diet or Exercise?

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, we bet you’ve wondered: Is diet or exercise more effective?

Spoiler alert: The answer is both, done together.

Only work out and you’ll have a hard time losing inches or pounds. Only diet and you might end up skinny-fat. Together, they have a symbiotic effect. It’s not just doubling your results, it’s turbocharging them. Let’s break it down so you can explain to your roommate, spouse, coworkers, or barista why you can’t skip your workout and why you’re passing on the muffins. And so you don’t talk yourself into thinking eating them is a good idea when your willpower is flagging.

The Impact of Eating a Healthy Diet

I hate the word “diet.” It makes me think of ordering off the part of the menu that has the iceberg lettuce and the cottage cheese. It isn’t appetizing (OK, admittedly I really hate cottage cheese) and it feels like punishment. What I mean by “diet” is the way you eat. What you put in your body is your diet. A healthy diet generally means eating clean and staying hydrated. Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, lean proteins, and lots of water. And, of course, the occasional real treat—like real chocolate, full of sugar and fat and deliciousness. It’s not a diet; it’s your diet!

Let’s look at a few reasons you should make your diet healthy:

* You’ll be Happier and More Productive

Your diet has a bigger impact on how you feel than you might think. By eating the right foods—particularly complex carbs, iron-rich foods, and foods high in omega-3s—you can boost your serotonin levels and energy levels so you feel happier and more equipped to handle what life throws at you. The reverse is also true. A study conducted by researchers at Brigham and Young Women’s Hospital found that women who ate a diet high in saturated fat performed the worst of all groups on memory and cognitive tests. Other research has revealed that low omega-3 levels, too little iron, and a diet high in simple carbs (sugar) may correlate with depression.

* Your Digestive System Will Run Better

The Standard American Diet is high in saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, and low in fruits and vegetables. The body responds to this in a variety of negative ways, and one of them is with sluggish digestion. Fried foods and foods high in fat can slow down your digestive system. A lack of fruits and vegetables results in not getting enough fiber for everything to move down the digestive tract, and if you’re not drinking enough water (a good gauge is half your body weight in ounces), then everything can get…stuck. The result is constipation. On the other hand, when you eat a healthy diet, your digestive tract runs like clockwork.

* You’ll Get to a Healthy Weight

“You can’t out-exercise a bad diet.” “Abs are made in the kitchen.” You’ve heard these classic, clichéd adages before, and they’re true. When I spoke with the 21 Day Fix’s Autumn Calabrese recently, she touched on this as well. “I see it all the time, people who go to the gym five to six days a week. But they don’t eat right and they’re all still overweight. They all still look the same as they did three years ago when I saw them. You can undo a good workout with one wrong meal.”

For example, this morning, I did the stairs near my house. They were hard and I felt like I had exerted myself. When I looked at my fitness tracker, it showed me I had burned 300 calories. That seems like a lot, so let’s put this into perspective. It’s fewer calories than 22 of the 30 items on Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu, and the same amount of calories in a chocolate croissant from Starbucks.


The Impact of Regular Exercise

You need to exercise. It doesn’t matter if you’re at your goal weight or not. The human animal is built to either move or fall apart. Here’s what the CDC recommends at the very minimum:

  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity (jogging or running) or an equivalent mix of the two every week.

  • Muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups two or more days a week.

This isn’t very hard. Do any Beachbody workout program and you’ll surpass those recommendations. Even if you’re doing the Ultimate Reset, which recommends only gentle exercise, you’ll still exceed it. And it will change your life in so many ways. Let’s look at a few.

* You’ll Feel Less Stressed and Happier

Like diet, exercise can help reduce the amount of the stress hormones floating around in your bloodstream and boost your serotonin levels so that you feel happier. And you don’t even have to get a “runner’s high” for that to happen. Even low levels of exercise can help alleviate and may, in some cases, prevent depression. Additionally, those who work out regularly often experience high levels of self-esteem and an improved body image. Who doesn’t want that?

* You’ll Sleep Better

Sleep is when the body recovers, muscles heal, and performance-enhancing hormones are released. When you sleep, your body’s leptin levels recover, which is a hormone that tells us we’re full so you’re better able to have the mental wherewithal to say no when someone passes the chips. Exercise helps you sleep in numerous ways, the simplest being that it breaks down tissue, which makes you tired because your body knows that it’s the best time period to make repairs. Thus, it’s not surprising that studies have shown regular exercise helps cure insomnia.

* You’re Less Likely to Get Sick

Though sometimes it seems a new exercise routine can bring on a mild cold, exercise actually increases your lymph circulation in the long run and the result is improved immunity against getting sick. According to the National Institute of Health, exercising can help flush bacteria from lungs, purge the body of cancer-causing cells, and “trigger the release of hormones that ‘warn’ immune cells of intruding bacteria or viruses.” The long-term results are even cooler, where exercise has been shown to boost your overall energy levels, improve bone density, lower cholesterol, and decrease the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.

* It Can Help You Lose Weight

To really see results on the scale, you need to create a caloric deficit. By existing you burn X amount of calories a day. To maintain that weight, you need to eat that many calories a day. To lose weight, you need to eat less. Eat more and you gain weight.

* You’ll Tone Up

If you can help it, you want to avoid being skinny-fat because a muscular body ages slower. You don’t need to be a bodybuilder, either. All exercise keeps your muscles toned, but for the toned “look” of sexy, defined arms, legs, back, and abs, you’ll want to resistance train.

The Benefits of Eating a Healthy Diet and Exercising Regularly

By now, you hopefully understand how important it is to eat right and work out if you want to live a happier, healthier, life. But, there’s even more benefit to combining the two. A healthy diet helps you exercise better. It provides your body with the energy it needs in a workout so you can push harder, and it helps you recover quicker. In return, exercise helps you eat better. You start craving healthier foods to fuel your body and you become more in tune with what your body needs. Perhaps most importantly, doing them both at once greatly speeds up results. Numerous studies (as well as Beachbody test groups) show that the synergistic effect of combining exercise and diet isn’t 2+2 = 4, but more like 2+2 = 10!