Dear Coach Laura,
If I'm trying to lose weight, which should I concentrate on more: cutting my caloric intake or increasing my exercise to use more calories?
Dear Trying Everything,
This is a tough question, because there’s no cut-dry answer based on just this question. I’ll try to answer as explicitly as I can while keeping it generic for many different situations.
First of all, let’s look at why calories always seem to figure into the calculations to lose weight. There are approximately 3500 calories in a pound of stored body fat. So, if you create a 3500-calorie deficit through diet, exercise or a combination of both, you will lose one pound of body weight. (On average 75% of this is fat, 25% lean tissue) If you create a 7000 calorie deficit you will lose two pounds and so on. The calorie deficit can be achieved either by calorie-restriction alone, or by a combination of fewer calories in (diet) and more calories out (exercise). This combination of diet and exercise is best for lasting weight loss. Indeed, sustained weight loss is difficult or impossible without increased regular exercise.
If you want to lose fat, a useful guideline for lowering your calorie intake is to reduce your calories by at least 500, but not more than 1000 below your maintenance level. For people with only a small amount of weight to lose, 1000 calories will be too much of a deficit. As a guide to minimum calorie intake, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that calorie levels never drop below 1200 calories per day for women or 1800 calories per day for men. Even these calorie levels are quite low.
Simply put, when you take in the same amount of energy, or calories, that you use up in daily body function and physical exercise, your weight remains the same. If you consume more calories from food than you burn, the excess energy becomes stored as fatty body tissue, and you'll gain weight. If you take in fewer calories than you utilize, your body will convert stored fat into usable energy, and you'll lose body mass and weight.
One of the ways to burn calories, as you know, is to exercise. That’s not news to anyone. But if you are gaining weight (or not losing), the most efficient way to lose it is to simply decrease the amount of calories you consume.
Exercise figures into the equation for a variety of reasons: it’s good for your heart and lungs, it increases muscle mass which helps make you more efficient at burning calories, it makes you feel better and have more energy, and it makes you want to eat better.
So my first answer is that decreasing your calories is more important than just exercising in the battle of the bulge. However, if you can combine the two things, you’ll feel more inclined to want to eat better to better feed your body with the fuel it wants, which will in turn prompt you to make better eating choices.
Because the second, more complicated answer is, even though calories do matter, it’s the quality of calories that matter more than the quantity. I know that sounds a bit contradictory to what I just explained about daily caloric intake, etc., but look at it this way – if you consume 1500 (a respectable weight-losing amount) calories per day of candy bars, brownies, Skittles, cookies, ice cream and other tempting delights, you may not still lose any weight, even if you increase your exercise amount. On the other hand, if you consume 2000 calories per day of fruits, vegetables, healthy grains, legumes and lean proteins, you’re more likely to lose weight (perhaps even without increasing your daily exercise). Your body needs the proper type of fuel, not just proper amount, to function the way it’s meant to.
It also requires fuel more often than you might think. Instead of eating three large meals a day, eat five to six smaller ones. One recent study even recommends nine(!) meals/snacks per day. Eating more frequently will help your body’s blood sugar levels stabilize, giving you more energy throughout the day.
Having said all that, there are always exceptions to every rule. I myself am an example of an exception because I have a medical metabolic issue right now with my thyroid that I’m working with on with my doctor and a licensed nutritionist.
If you are contemplating starting a diet or exercise regime, I urge you to consult with your physician before starting. I also encourage you to not refer to anything as a “diet” or “regime” because those words are horrible sounding. Evaluate your daily food intake and exercise, and start by making small changes that you know you should be doing anyway but haven’t started yet. Everyone has at least two things they can change in their daily physical routines to improve their overall health.
What will YOU do? Write it down and stick to it. You only have to stick to it one day at a time. Evaluate how you feel at the end of each day and make a goal to do it again the next day. Small steps are the key to any change. I know that in our Insta-society where social updates are available at the click of a button or twiddle of the thumbs, we expect the same out of our bodies. Be patient. You didn’t get where you are overnight; you won’t get where you want to be overnight either.
Bottom line: Exercise matters because of the many health benefits you’ll gain from it. Calories matter (slightly) more than exercise, but more important than quantity is quality.
To your health,