If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s important to eat less and move more, but it’s not a 50-50 equation—you’ll drop more pounds by paying closer attention to your diet than you will by increasing your exercise. That’s partly because it’s a lot easier to eat a 400-calorie cupcake than it is to burn it off (for example, a 150-pound person would have to walk at a 3.5-mph pace for 2 hours). Additionally, some people find that exercise makes them feel hungry, and it can be very tempting indulge in a treat because you feel like you’ve “earned” it. But with our propensity to overestimate calories burned through exercise and underestimate calories in the foods we eat, that can very quickly undermine your efforts. And while it’s true that exercise helps build and maintain muscle, which boosts your metabolism because it burns more calories than fat in your body, the overall effect on your metabolism is much lower than previously thought. But don’t hang up your sneakers just yet. Exercise is still important for weight loss; here’s why:
- Exercise helps you burn calories, both while you’re performing the activity and for a few hours afterward (although the “after-burn” effect is small). To lose one pound of weight in a week, you have to create a deficit of 3,500 calories, or 500 calories per day. So if you walk for an hour to burn 200 calories, you can reach your goal by trimming 300 calories from your diet that day. If you don’t exercise, all 500 calories have to come from your diet.
- Exercise helps you reverse the natural loss of muscle mass as you get older, and it ensures that when you drop pounds you’re losing fat instead of muscle.
- Exercise can help put you in a mindset to continue making healthful decisions throughout the day—you’ve already done something good for yourself, so you want to keep it up!
- Exercise boasts plenty of benefits besides weight loss, including boosting your mood, relieving stress, increasing energy, and protecting you against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Plus, some more good news: A new study from researchers at the University of Copenhagen shows that 30 minutes of vigorous exercise is just as effective for weight loss as a full hour. The key is working out hard enough that you break a sweat—a leisurely stroll around the block won’t cut it. One of my favorite strategies is to add intervals, short bursts of higher-intensity activity, to my regular workout. So if I’m walking, every two minutes I’ll break into a jog for 30 seconds, or I’ll choose a route that has lots of hills. One bonus of this approach is that the exercise doesn’t feel so hard because you’ve got built-in periods of lower intensity.
Good luck, and get moving!