What’s more important: nutrition or exercise? Why the 80/20 rule is misleading.

Personal Training, apple,dumbbell, measuring tapeWe’ve all heard the expression, losing weight and being healthy is ‘80% diet and 20% exercise’. But this isn’t the whole story.

While nutrition is absolutely a crucial aspect in a person’s health and wellness, and an important part of a healthy weight-loss plan (let’s face it the reason we gain weight is because we EAT more than we need to), this statement that weight loss is 80% diet and only 20% exercise can be misleading and omits a lot of important information.

Where does the 80/20 idea come from?

The reason this catch cry came about was most likely in response to people’s incorrect assumption that they could eat whatever they wanted as long as they exercised – to try to illustrate the point that ‘you can’t out-exercise a bad diet’. However by over simplifying and dramatising this statement, we take things too far in the opposite direction and completely undervalue the importance of exercise in a person’s overall health and wellbeing. When it comes specifically to losing weight, nutrition certainly plays a very large role. In fact studies show that when we just look at weight loss, diet DOES actually produce a greater weight loss than exercise alone. The problem is, that if we just measure the amount of WEIGHT lost, and don’t look at the amount of FAT lost and MUSCLE lost or gained, we are not getting the whole picture. Exercise – particularly resistance training exercise, helps your body to build muscle which boosts your metabolism. Restricting your dietary intake can help you to lose weight, but you’re likely to lose muscle as well as losing fat!

Muscle loss scaleWhat’s so bad about losing muscle?

Muscles are important for movement of course, balance, strength, stability, posture and endurance. But muscles also make up a large portion of your daily metabolic rate  – they burn a lot of calories. Every kilogram of muscle burns 5 times as many calories as 1 kilogram of fat.  So if you lose muscle, your metabolism reduces. This makes it easier for you to GAIN weight and fat if you fall of the diet wagon. If you have gone through many cycles of diet- weight loss-quit-weight gain, over time you lose more and more muscle, and your metabolism decreases more and more, making it easier to gain weight every time. So while you might lose weight with diet alone, you don’t build muscle that boosts metabolism, and you will probably even LOSE muscle.

On the other hand while you might not lose as much WEIGHT when you’re strength training, you are likely to lose just as much if not MORE body fat, while gaining lean muscle mass. Muscle actually weighs more than fat, but takes up less space, so you might not be losing a lot of weight, but you’ll be shrinking in size. If you can’t track your percentage body fat, a good way to assess your body changes is by looking at your waist and hip size rather than the number on the scale. Not only does strength training build muscle, it increases energy expenditure DURING a training session but energy expenditure is also elevated AFTER a training session for up to fifteen hours, not to mention the ongoing increased metabolism with added lean mass. 

Benefits of exercise

And let’s not forget, the reason we exercise is not JUST for weight loss. Here are some of the other many benefits you get from exercise that you just don’t get from diet alone.

  • Increase muscle strength and endurance
  • Increased joint strength and stability
  • Increased balance – reduction in slips and falls
  • Improved self-esteem and  self-confidenceBoot Camp Group Training Gym
  • Improved sleep quality and patterns
  • Increased libido
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Reduced risk of degenerative cognitive disease like Alzheimer’s
  • Improved brain function, learning and memory
  • Increased lifespan
  • Improved arthritis symptoms
  • Improved mood, reduced risk of depression
  • Increased energy levels
  • Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and management of blood sugar levels
  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke
  • Reduced risk of certain types of cancer

So in conclusion, diet is certainly a very important part of being healthy and losing weight. You really can’t out-exercise a bad diet. BUT many studies have been conducted over the years and the overwhelming conclusion is that diet PLUS exercise produces superior and longer lasting results than diet or exercise alone. So if you want to lose weight AND be healthy – eat right AND exercise! Simple.