What’s more important for weight loss: Counting calories or exercise?


Counting calories versus exercise

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Have you ever wondered what you should prioritize when trying to lose weight? Cardio, strength training and counting your macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat) are the three big components of weight loss. You should be doing all three, but each of these is not created equally.

Here’s how I rank those three elements for weight loss:


1. Counting your macronutrients

Logging your food is the most important component of weight loss. Figure out what a safe calorie deficit is for you (MyFitnessPal can help you do this), follow these guidelines consistently and the weight will come off. Make sure to readjust your daily goals as you lose weight.

Case in point: In 2010, Mark Haub, a professor at Kansas State University, lost 27 pounds in two months by eating mostly processed snack cakes and other junk food. Wait, what?! Yup, 27 pounds! How? His normal, pre-diet caloric intake was roughly 2,600 calories per day. When he went on his “Twinkie diet,” he limited himself to 1,800 calories per day and didn’t alter his daily activities or exercise.

Neither Haub nor I recommend the Twinkie diet or anything that’s equally non-nutritious, but the idea of eating less by being aware — by counting your calories — means it’s unlikely you’ll overeat.

Technically, you don’t have to exercise to lose weight. But, is this approach the most optimal for overall health? No! Counting your calories and macros is vital for weight loss, but it takes more than that to be strong and healthy. Keep in mind, we are organisms that are dependent upon work — or, in other words, exercise.


2. Building strength

Strength training is the best form of exercise you can do, no matter your age or whether you are trying to lose weight. I know that not everyone loves the weight room. But the return on investment — denser bones, stronger ligaments and tendons, better posture and, most importantly in this context, more muscle to burn calorie — is incredible.

Your strength has a direct effect on how you interact with your environment. The stronger you are, the easier daily tasks become, such as climbing the stairs, carrying a full laundry basket and raking leaves. Strength train for the future: Preserving muscle for your 50s and beyond will help delay the need for assistance with everyday activities. Did you know that many people who have to check in to assisted living homes do so because they are unable to get off the toilet, open a door or dress themselves? Muscle is what keeps us moving, and it needs to be fed a steady diet of weight training. An optimal, efficient way to strength train: Complete compound exercises like squats, shoulder presses and deadlifts two to three days a week.


3. Cranking out cardio

Cardiovascular exercise is often thought of by the mainstream media and even some doctors as the best way to lose weight. It’s not. That’s not to say that it isn’t important, it’s just not at the top of the list.

I’m a big believer in being balanced, so every single one of my clients does some sort of conditioning work, whether it’s running on a treadmill, riding a spin bike or pushing a sled. I suggest twice-weekly sessions of 10–20 minutes of lung-scorching, high-intensity interval training. You can do these types of workouts at the end of your strength-training sessions or on the days in between.

Another option is to do low-intensity, steady-state cardio. It’s the perfect place to start if you are new to the exercise game or in the early stages of losing weight. Walking or using a recumbent bike are also acceptable for such workouts. Try doing this two times per week.


Remember: The best place to start when trying to lose pounds is counting calories. Make sure your daily caloric allowance is a safe deficit. Even if you don’t count your daily macros, your body does. Adding strength training will help you maintain your muscle mass for today and for the future. And, no one likes to feel winded walking up a flight of stairs, so round out your program with a little cardio conditioning work. Good health comes at a cost: time, energy, money, sacrifice and hard work. Just keep in mind that the cost is even greater if you don’t commit.


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