Diet vs. Exercise: Which Is More Effective?

Here’s how effective diet and exercise can be for your goals.

Workout weights with healthy fruits and vegetables on a table with a tape measure

Which is more effective, diet or exercise? Should you start by cutting out fast food? Or, by jogging each morning? If you’re debating between starting with diet and taking on a workout regimen, here’s how to combine the two for an overall healthier lifestyle.

Which is more effective for losing weight, diet or exercise?

The answer may vary from person to person, but generally, the answer is that dieting and cutting calories will help you lose weight faster. Mayo Clinic suggests that cutting calories is a faster way to lose weight than trying to burn off calories that you’ve already eaten. However, Mayo Clinic also warns that if you cut calories too drastically, your habits will be unsustainable.

Many people tend to gain back the weight within six months. WebMD agrees; however, they note that it’s not just the number of calories you’re ingesting, but also the type of calories, that matters. Many people don’t know how to accurately count calories and vastly underestimate how much they’re actually eating. No matter how much exercise you do, you can never outwork a poor diet.

Is diet or exercise better for long-term weight loss?

While cutting calories may be more effective for short-term weight loss, you’ll also need to incorporate exercise into your routine if you want a long-term healthy lifestyle.

Exercise increases the efficiency of your metabolism, so your body will keep burning calories throughout the day even after your workout is over. Additionally, exercise has benefits that contribute to overall health, such as better sleep, improved mood, and lowered risk of heart disease.

If I want to get stronger, which will help me more—diet or exercise?

Both diet and exercise can help you get stronger. If your goal is to bulk up and build muscle, start by consuming extra calories (preferably in the form of protein). Building muscle requires your body to have an excess of calories. You may want to eat more often throughout the day.

However, if your goal is simply to be able to accomplish a physical feat—such as running a race—then routine exercise will be more effective. Your muscles adapt to your exercises and your body becomes more efficient at accomplishing the task. Whatever your goal is, though, you will need a combination of exercise and a healthy diet to see significant results.

Related: 6 Common Diet and Exercise Myths

What’s the best way to combine diet and exercise improvements?

Whether you’re trying to gain muscle or simply trying to lose a pant size, you’ll need to make changes to your diet and your exercise habits if you want to see long-term results. Here are some suggestions for ways to combine diet and exercise improvements for a complete healthy lifestyle.

• Start small. Make one or two changes for two weeks or until you feel like they’ve become part of your daily routine. If you try to make too many changes at once, you’ll burn yourself out and lose motivation.

• Set measurable goals. As management expert Peter Drucker once said, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Your goal could be to increase the amount of weight you lift by five pounds each week, jog for 15 minutes each morning, or swap out rice for quinoa in a meal—anything that’s quantifiable.

• If you miss a day of exercise or cheat on your diet, that’s okay. Don’t let it discourage you. Each day is a new day for you to try again.

• Stick to a schedule. You’re more likely to attain your exercise and eating goals if you work out and have mealtime at the same time each day. Habits are powerful. Your body will get used to the routine.

Related: Here's How to Create a Healthy Diet

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