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Exercise versus nutrition; what is the best strategy for weight loss?

Should you eat less, or move more? This is a very common question for those who are trying to lose weight!

To lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. This means you need to be burning more calories than you are consuming. From a theoretical standpoint, it makes no difference if you create this deficit through burning more calories, consuming less calories, or a combination of both. From a practical standpoint though, there are clear differences.

Creating a deficit through exercise alone

This is a very common, albeit typically unsuccessful strategy to lose weight. As previously stated, you can technically leave your nutrition unmanaged, and just exercise yourself into a calorie deficit. There are a few reasons why this isn’t the best strategy.

It is time and energy consuming

Exercising to lose weight is trading your time for calories. It works, but it will likely take a long time, and a lot of effort. If you exercise 4-5 times a week, that will likely be equivalent to 1000-3000 calories burned. Although this will produce weight loss, it will just take a lot of time, and be difficult. In addition, if you are drastically overconsuming calories, you can potentially do all that exercise, and not lose anything.

The other option is setting a very lofty step goal. This is likely a better option than hammering yourself with fitness classes every day - but it will still take a lot of time and discipline to be successful.

It isn't consistent

Fitness trackers are notoriously poor for accurately assessing calories burned. This means if you rely on exercise, it is kind of a guessing game of how many calories you’ll burn each week, resulting in inconsistent weight loss.

It is far easier to walk and exercise a certain amount of steps each week, and then set a calorie goal. Doing this will increase consistency, since calories in food are easier to reliably stick to than saying “I need to burn X calories each week from exercise.”

As your fitness levels increase, your caloric burn decreases

Over time, you will improve your fitness levels. As this happens, the calories you burn from exercise decrease. This means over time, you will need to increase your duration of exercise, intensity, or both.

Physically exhausting

For most individuals, if you set a lofty step goal, or if you exercise countless hours in the gym, you’ll be sore. This can lead to a chronic feeling of being sore and exhausted.

Creating a deficit through nutrition alone

This also isn’t the best option. This situation is when someone doesn’t exercise, doesn’t track their steps, and only tracks their calories or follows a diet.

Less caloric flexibility

If you don’t do a ton of activity or exercise, you will have a relatively low total daily energy expenditure. This means you’ll need to have a low calorie intake in order to lose weight. This can lead to a pretty restrictive lifestyle, resulting in you needing to be quite strict with your nutrition.

Mentally exhausting

Although it isn’t as physically exhausting as exercise, having a strict nutritional intake can feel quite mentally exhausting. If you don’t have a ton of caloric flexibility, things like eating out, birthday parties, and holidays can feel quite stressful.

The best option

At this point, you may be confused what our recommendation is for weight loss… Exercise alone and nutrition alone are both relatively poor options from a practical standpoint. Having said that, if one of those work for you, great - you don’t need to change anything! However, the best option is a combination of training and nutrition!

Let's say you’d like to lose 1lb a week. This means you need to create a calorie deficit of 3500 per week. In other words, you need to burn 3500 calories more in a week than you consume. Although this may be quite difficult if you’re trying to do it with only exercise or only nutrition, it is actually quite easy to do if you use a combination. You can use exercise to increase your daily energy expenditure, but also restrict some calories, making it so you don’t need to use excessive exercise. This strategy will be far easier, less fatiguing, and work better for most peoples’ lifestyle. A combination of training and nutrition will help you maximize the benefits of each approach.

Before you start a new dietary approach, or put together a program for the gym, ensure you’ve made a plan for both training AND nutrition. Utilizing both will not only make your weight loss more efficient, but it will make it easier and more sustainable long-term!

Kurtis Proksch, CSCS, CNC, PTS

Head Strength Coach

KPCC Coaching

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