Movement is Medicine: Diet vs Exercise for losing weight

The end of the year is upon us, and after the holidays, many of us begin thinking about the new year and the resolutions that we will set for ourselves. Overwhelmingly, the most popular resolution is to lose weight, and while we have discussed a variety of ways to do that through the implementation of various diets or new workouts, today we are going to look at the question more broadly. When it comes to losing weight, in other words, what is the most important thing to focus on, diet or exercise. Everyone is aware that both are important, but a recent meta-analysis done on weight loss studies reveal some interesting results.

It turns out that losing weight is much more a function of your diet – in the most general meaning of that word – than the exercise you do. Before going any further, we must reiterate that exercise alone may be the best thing that you can to improve your overall health, happiness and quality of life, but it is not even close to the most important factor when it comes to losing weight specifically.

For all of the benefits of exercise, it is actually pretty useless for weight loss. The reason for this is simply due to the way our bodies use energy. There are three main ways that our bodies use energy and burn the calories that we ingest in the form of the food choices we make. The first is your resting metabolism; which is the calories burned for basic physiologic activity – the energy it takes simply to keep you alive. The second main way our bodies burn calories is the thermic effect of food – the energy required to breakdown the food we put in our body. The third use of energy is, of course, physical activity, but this represents only about 20-30 percent of total calories burned over the course of a day.

What this means is the you are responsible for 100 percent of the calories you put in your body, but only responsible for about 30 percent of the calories you burn as your resting metabolism and the energy used to breakdown food is generally out of your control. One study found that if a 200 lb man ran for an hour, four days a week for a month, he would lose about 5 lbs – If everything else remains the same. Unfortunately, whenever anyone starts a new workout program or significantly increases physical activity levels, things tend not to stay the same. When we workout especially aggressively, we tend to eat more and be less active throughout the rest of the day. This is not meant to be a deterrent to exercise of course, only to make the point that if we are trying to lose weight, exercise is not the solution.

We have an obesity epidemic in this country and it is important to not draw the false conclusion that we can simply work off bad food choices. The decision of what we eat, and feed our children, are some of the most important decisions we make. If you have questions about food choices, or exercise, Alliance Health is here to help.

Dr. Chris Telesmanic  is a Doctor of Physical Therapy at Alliance Health in Fresno. He will be happy to answer questions submitted to Learn more about movement, fitness and health in this space each week, on our Facebook page, by going to, or calling 478-5833.


This article first appeared in the Hanford Sentinel, Movement is Medicine column, written by Alliance Health.

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