We Are Meant to Move: Why 'Dieting' Alone Doesn't Work

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Did you know that you can lose weight without doing any exercise?  I’m sure you have heard about the concept of calories in versus calories out.  According to this principle, all you need to do is decrease your daily calorie intake to less than what you are burning per day and you will lose weight.  Is this correct? Technically, yes.  This is the foundation for every single "diet."   However, if you want to lose weight, look better, get healthy and keep it up, you have got to use your body as it was intended and start moving!

If you are overweight, you probably are not moving enough.  There is an ongoing debate about whether diet or exercise is more important in weight loss and management.  There are studies that support the role of calorie restriction as being more important for weight loss and there are others that support the greater role of exercise in determining pounds lost.  

So, which one is more important?  In my opinion they are answer equally important!  At SparkPeople, we place an equal emphasis on diet and exercise.  (Diet is defined as the food and drink that you are consuming on a daily basis, and that's the definition we use at SparkPeople.) But, I suspect that even on SparkPeople, there are large numbers of people who are losing weight with calorie restriction alone or who, at the very least, do not emphasize exercise enough.  I am here to tell you that this is a recipe for failure.  It may seem harsh, but I’ve got to give you some tough love and let you know that diet without exercise will likely not work in the long run to keep off your lost pounds.   

What does moving mean? Understanding movement starts with defining what sedentary means.  What is a sedentary lifestyle? Technically a sedentary lifestyle is a medical term used to describe a type of lifestyle with no or irregular physical activity.  A sedentary lifestyle is probably better known as being a couch potato.  People who live sedentary lifestyles are likely to be stuck in a routine that involves starting the morning with a commute to a desk job then a commute home only to spend most of the evening watching TV or surfing on a computer.  The only thing that qualifies as activity is walking to and from the car and maybe the walking around the grocery store to pick up food. 

Why is a sedentary lifestyle bad for you? Well, for one thing it is predictive of weight gain as presented in the Surgeon General’s report of Physical Activity
What is the worst sedentary activity? The Nurses' Health Study demonstrated that prolonged television watching was the most predictive of weight gain of all sedentary activities.
The goal is to adopt a healthier lifestyle.  In order to have a healthier lifestyle, you must accept that both diet AND exercise for the rest of your life is necessary.  When I was nearly 300 pounds, the thought of consistently exercising seemed almost an unimaginable feat.  I had declared in the past that I hated exercise and I thought that I knew this about myself.  My attitude was not surprising. After all, I was horribly out of shape and had back and knee pain when I started my journey in 2007.  But, due to resources like SparkPeople, I knew that I needed to try out this "exercise thing."  I chose to use an elliptical machine as an introduction to cardiovascular fitness and I added weight training later.  I started with just 5 to 10 minutes a day and slowly worked up to where I am today.  So, I guess I can be called a reformed couch potato. 

Understanding all of the benefits of exercise is an extremely expansive topic, so, what I want to emphasize is the transition from a sedentary lifestyle to an active lifestyle.   Here are a few of my tips for making this transition smoother:
  1. Make time for exercise.  Many of you are going to say that you don’t have enough time to think about exercise.  Between working, taking care of children, cleaning the home, it doesn’t leave much time for anything else does it?  But, remember that you must put yourself first and you have to make the time to exercise.  You wouldn’t stop brushing your teeth because you didn’t have time, would you?  Most Americans can discover more time by just giving up or limiting television.  If you must watch then park an elliptical, treadmill, or exercise bike in front of it and turn a negative into a positive.  That’s what I did.  Record your favorite shows and make a deal with yourself that you will only watch when you exercise.   There are hundreds of different ways to start moving.  Just start!
  2. Do what works best for you and be ready to change if your workout schedule becomes too difficult to maintain.  When I first started my lifestyle change I got my exercise in at night before bed.  At that time my children were not sleeping through the night and by the time 5:30 a.m. rolled around I was too exhausted to even think about exercise.   This worked out for me for years, but as the kids got older they started to demand more time in the evenings so I switched to morning workouts.  I’ve been waking up on weekdays at 5:30 a.m. to do 45-60 minute cardio sessions for just about one year.  This is what works now, but I know that I can change if necessary. 
  3. Get support.  Support is critical when establishing an exercise habit.  Chores may need to be delegated and childcare arrangements may need to be made.  Sometimes there really are not enough hours in a day and the only way to find time is to find another way to take care of your obligations. Also, make sure your support is positive.  Your support should not be saying to you, "Are you going to the gym again?!" SparkPeople has amazing teams that can help you deal with just any situation! Join a team today!
  4. Don’t burn out.  Start slowly. You will have much more success if you start with shorter sessions (think 5-20 minute workouts) than if you try to go from couch potato to hourlong cardio sessions.  Distract yourself to get through your workouts if necessary.  Read while you are on the exercise bike, watch TV while walking on the treadmill, or watch your kids play while on the elliptical.  Keep it interesting but not overwhelming.  Do not exercise to the point of extreme discomfort and certainly do everything possible to avoid injury!
  5. Wear appropriate clothing.  If you are exercising at home you can get away with working out in an old T-shirt and ripped shorts.  But, if you plan to exercise in public, you may want to invest in proper attire for a couple of reasons.  First, you look like you are there for business and you will blend in with the crowd.  Also, athletic clothing designed for exercise manages sweat much better than an old T-shirt! Try it! You will be amazed at the difference!
  6. Find opportunities everywhere.  I know you’ve heard it before but every little bit does ads up. Sneak in exercise by taking the stairs, parking far away from the door, carrying your own groceries, cleaning the house, and standing instead of sitting.   These calories burned may not seem worth it, but over time they add up to pounds per year! 
  7. Be consistent.  Forming a habit requires consistency.  You need to establish your new habit and the only way to do it is through consistency.  SparkStreaks are a great tool to help you achieve consistency. 
  8. Accept activity for life.  When I was losing weight but still over 200 pounds, I had a conversation with someone who I thought was "naturally thin."  I wondered why in the world she was counting calories and exercising almost daily.  She told me that her mother taught her from a young age to eat nutritious foods, watch your portions, and make exercise a part of your life.  She also told me that she nips any scale creeps in the bud even though she had never been overweight.  That conversation was an "A-ha!" moment for me.  This is when I accepted and understood that most thin people are that way because they work for it.  Just as it is not magical for me to lose and maintain my weight it is not magical for the "naturally thin" as well.  
So, are you ready to stop minimizing the importance of getting off the couch?  Do you accept that most "naturally thin" people do some form of regular exercise?  Take the plunge and start today.  Only 5 -10 minutes a day are required to get your feet wet.  Keep doing it almost every day until you have formed a new habit. If you have not adopted an exercise plan, stop shortchanging yourself.  Look at the statistics.  Successful maintainers exercise.  This is a proven fact.  I know that you are not losing weight to gain it back, so start consistently exercising today! Keep sparking!

Did you start an exercise program before or after you started watching what you ate? Which of the two has more of an effect on your weight loss?
Dr. Birdie Varnedore, M.D., is happy to offer her expertise to the SparkPeople community; however, she cannot offer specific medical advice to dailySpark readers. Please do not share confidential medical information here. If you have a personal question or a concern about your health, please contact your health-care provider.

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PATRICIAANN46 11/24/2020
Thank You................. Report
My body moves very slowly these days. Report
I couldn't do one without the other Report
VHAYES04 9/14/2020
Ty Report
CECELW 7/30/2020
i feel like i read this before Report
Good info. Thanks! Report
I love to walk!!! Report
It's not easy but is true. Thanks. Report
Thank you Dr. Varnedore! This article was superbly written and quite motivating - and that's from a 67-year-old! Report
I am primarily counting calories to lose weight. I do some walking & want to increase my intensity & activity. I was once one of those naturally thin ppl who never exercised. However I was younger & more active in general. For me doing more workouts is about heart health & getting fit. That is separate from how much I weigh. Age & other medical conditions can limit certain types of activity but there are always work-arounds; ask any physical therapist.🐨 Report
I totally agree with this. For myself, I would have to eat so few calories that I wouldn't be eating healthy in order to lose weight without exercising. Report
Great article! Report
thanks Report
Exercising helps me want to eat better. Thanks. Report
So I guess that those of us who CAN'T exercise due to physical limitations and need to rely heavily on the "diet" end (eating healthy & creating a calorie deficit that way) are all doomed for failure? Yeah, thanks. Report
I miss 60 lbs. without exercise slowly, but now I am adding exercise and I feel better. Weight is still going down slowly even though I stay in calorie range but she could be a factor. As long as it is dropping and I keep feeling good and keep exercising i am happy. Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
thanks Report
Dr. Fung has research to refute this. Report
It may be possible to maintain with eating less but moving makes it easier Report
I started eating healthier and exercising at the same time. I can't see how one without the other wouls help me reach my goals. Report
#8 was the "ah ha" moment for me too. I'd always thought "poor me, I can't eat what I want and I have to exercise to keep my weight off." Then I realized that almost everyone has to do that! Paying attention to the food/fuel I put in my body is just a smart thing to do to stay healthy and moving every day is plain good for me, like brushing my teeth and getting enough sleep.
Lucky me that I can do these things! Report
I was 76 kilos a few years ago, after a walking holiday, no less! A medical,student diagnosed the knee pain I was suffering as arthritis, aggravated by weight. Misdiagnosis, but it spurred me to take action. I paid to join slimming world and liked their emphasis on scientific eating, rather than dieting. Within a few months I took off 18 kilos, down to 58. I didnt stay there long, but kept 10 of those 18 kilos off. I made some attempt to exercise, walking and chopping firewood mostly. Last summer I joined SP at 65-66 kilos. For New Year I did January Jumpstart and that transformed my life. This year I have gone down from 62-55-56 and have kept it off for 5 months so far. And made exercise a part of my life, apart from 6 weeks when I was terribly weak from a combination of overexercising and a succession of viruses. I am now trying to work out an exercise system that will work long term, and hope to be able to go back to intuitive eating eventually. The scales told me that wasnt working, tho SPs calorie guidelines are too low, useful when reducing, but not ideal for maintenance.. I am now 56 kilos, below my original goal of 57, but above my revised goal of staying at 55. Report
I started exercising - cardio and weight lifting - from day one of my weight loss journey, which began in 2004. Report
I agree 100%. When I first joined Spark, I was one of those "diet only" people. I watched everyone exercising and thought "these people are crazy" and "I don't have time/desire for all that exercising." Then I started Couch to 5K and got hooked on running -- it has completely changed my life! If anything, I've become more of an exercise and less of a diet person, though the combination is still what I need to get and keep off the weight!

I wish I had seen this blog 3 years ago when I first joined! Report
I was raised early on to eat healthy and exercise. in my adult life, I use exercise to stay fit but especially to deal with stress. Eating healthy is paramount not only because it is good for my overall health but especially because I don't feel well if I skip my healthy habits for a few days. Tracking my food and fitness minutes creates a structure in my life I can rely on to shoot for the stars! Report
I could not agree more - a combination of both is the best everytime. Report
Hey Dr Birdie! With me for too many years all I did was diet! A month after joining sparkpeople my sister said "You know we need to start exercising!" I got very belligerent and said "NO WAY"! Well the next day I did try to walk down to the end of our block. I didn't do so good but decided if I could get that far without having to call 911 I would consent to try it with her. We had to add a few steps each day. We also had to use walking sticks! Our hips hurt us so bad and that really helped. After walking outside and during the winter on our treadmill for a year we had lost enough weight so we felt very comfortable to walk with out them. Winter came around again and we couldn't face another winter in the basement with the treadmill. We ended up joining our local fitness center where we started strength training. We have both lost 175 lbs. I am currently in my maintenance mode and Becky is still working hard to lose her last 10 or so. It only took me 57 years to realize that mother was right all along. Diet and exercise and all things in moderation. WHO KNEW! Report
i tend to watch what i eat first and then add exercise to the mix. Report
I started an exercise program before I started watching what I ate. They both have equally effected my weight loss. I lost so much with only exercise. I plateaued, then started tracking my food more. I've lost a few more pounds, so I'm not at a plateau anymore. :D
Just finished my thesis using similar research...so I am on board with this. Getting started will help you to develop some strategies early on, finding what activities work for you and when and specifially how you will execute this....best of luck. Thanks for the article to "Spark" some more motivation:)
This was just what I needed to read today! Over the years, I've tried just exercising, just watching my diet, AND both. Sadly, none have produced any results, because I haven't stuck with it for more than two weeks. That's why I'm here now. I'm ready to work it! Report
As a child, I was extremely active and always on the chubby side. My skinny sister was a bookworm and has hated any form of exercise all of her life. We also called her the "garbage can" because she ate what we couldn't. How does one explain that? Report
I started exercising first and saw real improvement in my health (blood pressure, cholestrol, breathing, etc) but I wasn't losing weight. That's when I found SP. I'm still struggling with losing weight and keeping it off but I'm not afraid to try any more. Right now I'm on the losing side of things and looking forward to keeping it off! Report
This was a great article! I have found that since joining SP and keeping track of what comes in and what is burned off, if I eat well, it's easier to exercise and if I exercise, it's easier to eat well. I don't want to sabotage one by not doing the other. I am also learning that treating myself to a little indulgence once in awhile is okay because then I will just work harder to lose any weight that I gain. I know that through SP and being active and eating healthy, I can lose weight and most importantly, I can keep it off!
Thanks for this great article!
I started working out on an elliptical that our senior citizens have. I wear an I-pod with fast beat music on it. I do feel much better when I exercise. I watch every thing I eat. Finding the time is a real effort. The colder weather also keeps me from getting outside. I lost my weight now I am maintaining it! Exercise and diet is the key...you are what you eat, you look as you do. Exercise is of the most important. I don't want to eat as much when I exercise. Report
I exercised and kept the weight off until I had surgery. After surgery I gained 50 pounds and never looked back. I started watching what I ate and exercising again consistently just over a year ago but the weight wouldn't come off. I finally joined a weight loss class and found out I wasn't eating enough calories. For me the exericse is easy but eating enough is hard. So far I have lost 33 pounds and hope to continue. I know that this is different than most people's problems but everyone should be informed that just cutting calories isn't enough Report
Great article!! For me, diet is always a little bit about deprivation. I think that's why I could never keep it up long term and keep the weight off. But this time, by adding exercise, I discovered new ways to use and love my body - trying new things and seeing improvement in my fitness levels have kept me going for far longer than I could ever maintain a "diet" before. I am loving my new athletic lifestyle!! Report
I clicked on this link from facebook thinking that it was about having a partner to diet with--"dieting alone." I have almost always dieted without any exercise added. And to be honest I have always lost when I really and deliberately kept close watch on my food intake. BUT (and it's a big one!!) I have never kept that weight off for the long haul. Every time I diet, I start at a higher level of weight. This time, with the nutrition and exercise trackers on SparkPeople, I have added walking to my weight-loss plan. I know even after just three weeks, I am walking better and faster. I have had both knees replaced, so I don't expect to run a marathon, but I'm thinking maybe walking one some day. Regarding the idea of dieting with a partner which I thought I'd be reading about, I do better having a person to encourage me and to hold me accountable. It also motivates me to "compete" in a weight-loss contest. I like winning, but right now, I'm down 3 pounds. Another way of looking at it is that together we've lost 21 pounds in three weeks. We're both losers and winners at the same time. Report
I have always exercised but thought that if I worked out for 45 minutes each day, it gave me the right to eat what ever I wanted and to sit on my butt the rest of the day! About six months ago, I downloaded the Spark People app on my phone and really discovered what I was eating. After I made some adjustments in my diet and reduced my caloric intake, I lost weight rather quickly. I still log my food in every day and make sure I keep moving!

Overall, I think my success was 80% diet and 20% exercise. Report
In April 2011, my sister and I were the EXACT same weight(262.8). I had been eating an organic, whole(real) food diet for a couple years but without exercise. In Jan 2011, she had begun a "biggest winner" type training thing and in Feb 2011 I had began walking 3 miles several times per week. That day we found out we were the exact same weight we decided to team up and check in weekly. She also began to incorporate whole foods into her diet at this time. She finished her "biggest winner" training in May 2011 but had no weight loss(seriously no weight change just inches...???). I had incorporated cardio and weight training at least 5 times a week by this same time. As we continued checked in weekly after her "winner" deal was over it usually sounded a bit like this.
Me:" I worked out 5 times, tracked all food, strength trained 3 times, had a great week!".
Her:" I did a day here and there of yoga, I'll do a few sit ups and tonight before bed and maybe will try to jump rope in a couple days."

At the beginning of August 2011 after checking in weekly for 4 months she asks if we can change our check in's to monthly(you probably can see where this is going")

Today: My sister weighs 265 and I weigh 239
Moral of the story: Diet AND Exercise get the job done!

Great article!!
UPDATE: My sister said she now weighs 260 :) Report
You lie, you die...more press has come out lately reflecting the association between a shortened lifespan and inactivity... Report
People tell me I look younger now I tell them I excerise vigurously and drink alot of water. Report
This article hits the nail right on its head! Adopting a healthy diet and combining it with movement on a regular basis equals a health lifestyle! Give it a try you will be surprised at the results! Report
Exercising is not a problem. It's all the junk I used to shove in my face. Report
I do love the feelings that I have after exercising. The scales does not always move..but I noticed the changes from exercising....more definition in body shape,less effort to complete workout...& the desire to think of food in terms of exercise needed to burn it off. Report
Preach!!!! Great Read!! Report
After I had my first kid 5 years ago I bought my first exercise dvd and starting exercise and watching what I ate since then. Then 2 years later I discovered sparkpeople, and started the calorie counting. Since then I have been on and off in the calorie counting qhen I had needed to lose weight, but the exercise is a routine for me even if I don't want to lose weight. So I think that both exercising and dieting are an important part of weight loss Report