Ahh, the age-old conundrum. Are abs made in the kitchen or the gym? Just kidding! We all have abdominal muscles. But, people often wonder—what's more important when it comes to weight loss—exercise or their diet? Here's a closer look at the science of exercise and weight. Plus, why I think you should be exercising regardless.
Read more: The 5 Best Exercises for Weight Loss
Exercise and weight loss
Exercise isn't as important for your weight as what you eat and your genetics. People who lose weight and keep it off long term, report exercising regularly. But as far as short-term weight loss benefits go, that's where things get a little bit tricky.
One study found that while moderate levels of exercise will increase daily calorie burn, more exercise didn't necessarily lead to more energy burned. The researchers think our bodies may compensate and save energy during other activities.
You can also expect your appetite to increase as your activity level does. We often overestimate calories we burn during activities, and then "reward" ourselves with treats (this may be especially true for you if you're only exercising to lose weight). Doing the opposite can also lead to weight gain. If your activity level goes up, but you don't give your body enough calories, your metabolism will slow down (your body is desperately trying to hang on to energy). Sometimes with increased activity—especially high-intensity exercise—you're not actually hungrier, so you may be unintentionally underfueling (discover 8 surprising reasons you're always hungry).
On the flip side, exercise helps build muscle which burns more calories and can increase your metabolism. Muscle burns about three times more calories than fat (6 calories per pound per day compared to 2). Exercise also does burn energy (aka calories) even if it's less than we think. It can also set you up for healthy habits. If you got up early and worked out, you may be inspired to make healthy choices throughout the day.
There's no guarantee that hitting the gym will help you drop pounds, but it is still really good for you.
Why not exercise anyway?
Forget how you look for a second. Is your weight-loss goal motivated by health in any way? Maybe you want to take care of your heart, stick around for your grandkids or improve your mood? Exercise is key for so many health outcomes regardless of weight or how you look. You'll sleep better, feel better, manage stress better and reduce your risk for a number of dangerous chronic diseases (read more about the mental health benefits of exercise).
My personal motivation to move more is taking care of my extremely active toddler and managing stress (though, being strong enough to lift heavy things without needing help from my husband is also very motivating).
How to make it happen
Find something you like to do; then do it. OK, fine. It may not be that simple, but it's not super complicated either to fit exercise into your life. It doesn't have to look like hour long boot camp sessions (especially, if you hate boot camp). All movement counts.
The CDC recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate activity and at least 2 strength training activities per week. That's 30 minutes of walking for 5 days (or 3, 10-minute mini walks) plus some muscle-building exercises (try squats and other body weight movements, yoga, or a YouTube video).
I find that when people only exercise to lose weight they're not likely to enjoy it or stick with it. If it doesn't lead to quick weight loss (and we've already learned it likely won't), it's easy to give up right away. Exercising to lose weight also makes it seem like a punishment, rather than treating it as something positive.
Sometimes you'll move more and sometimes less, that's OK. Dance. Park far away. Take the stairs. Don't get discouraged too quickly if you don't see or feel results right away. And while it may not be the key to losing weight, there are so many benefits to movement that are either hard to measure or don't come quickly.
Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.