There are misleading and confusing pieces of information out there relating to exercise and diet, some of them being all calories are equal in value, and others that exercise can undo our eating habits. Let’s break these down to determine if enough exercise, or exercise alone, would result in weight loss. The simple fact is that, for a truly healthy lifestyle, it takes both exercise and a healthy diet working together, among other things, for a healthy and nutritious life balance.
Calories are not all the same
These misunderstandings come from the public perception that obesity is solely an issue of inactivity and that all calories are the same. While 100 calories from fruits and vegetables and 100 calories of brownies are both 100 calories, they are not equal. The fruits and vegetables will include more vitamins and nutrients, and likely the volume of these foods will be a larger amount than the brownie, making you feel full for longer. Overeating, even of high-quality nutrient-dense foods, can still result in weight gain. When looking at making caloric restrictions, we’ll want to plan to eat more nutrient-dense items, so that you feel more satisfied and get more nutrients while consuming fewer calories. Does this mean you can never have the brownie? No. But, it doesn’t mean eating multiple brownies in one sitting regularly either. Keep in mind that moderation is very important, and regardless of weight status, a healthy diet is important.
Exercise and diet are a pair
Exercise and diet cannot replace each other, as they both serve different roles. While both positively impact health, they do so in different ways. The diet helps us to feel good and get the nutrients we need to maintain our proper body functions. Exercise goes beyond weight control. Taking part in regular physical activity helps in other areas like heart health, muscle mass, bone strength, diabetes management, improving mental health, and more. However, the impact of exercise will have a limited effect without a healthy diet to accompany it, especially for those trying to lose weight.
They work so much together, it really is a marriage that makes them both a part of the regular recommendations for heart health. Even those of a healthy weight still need to manage diet, with as much as 40% of people in a normal BMI range still dealing with metabolic conditions that lead to an increased risk of obesity, and negatively impact heart health, like high blood pressure (1).
Health is a process, not a destination
Let’s acknowledge that maintaining both diet and exercise is hard. It’s estimated over 2/3rds of Americans are in the overweight/obese category, and only about 50% of Americans meet physical activity recommendations of 150 min/week of moderate-intensity exercise (2). We’re very good at overestimating the calories expended during exercise, and underestimating the calories we consume. Increasing exercise can make us feel hungrier, which can lead us to eat more.
So, how do we aim for a balance of diet and exercise? That’s just it, it takes balance, self-care, and patience. Aim for both, and balance where you can. Workday consuming your time and energy? Try to get out for a short walk and get the movement where you can, but every day doesn’t need to be a hard workout. These same days, aim for making healthy diet choices. Set yourself up with some meal planning and healthy, accessible snacks so you’re not caught in a pinch. Do you have a fun celebration coming up, that good food is likely going to be a part of? Enjoy the good food and celebrations, and try to get your work out earlier in the day. Aim for trying to work a little harder or longer than you normally would.
Don’t aim for perfection, it’s not all or nothing. Working on your health is a life-long process, not a destination. These daily choices of diet and exercise make a single impact, and the more often we make these choices they compound to an even bigger impact.
Kimberly Burke is a lecturer in the Department of Health and Exercise Science and the director of their Adult Fitness Program at Colorado State University. Adult Fitness offers exercise opportunities for employees of CSU as well as community members while providing hands-on learning experiences for health promotion students. To learn more, see the Adult Fitness Program website
- Malhotra A, Noakes T, Phinney SIt is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad dietBritish Journal of Sports Medicine 2015;49:967-968.
- You can’t outrun a bad diet, authors say. www.heart.org. (2016, July 8). Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.heart.org/en/news/2018/05/01/you-cant-outrun-a-bad-diet-authors-say