Fitness experts weigh in on what gives you the most bang for your (healthy) buck: diet or exercise? Whether you’re focusing on living a healthy lifestyle, maintaining weight or weight loss, you need to know how important is diet versus exercise? We answer that question here.
Photo credit: OcusFocus/ iStock/360/ Getty Images

Diet and exercise go hand in hand. We've all heard this tried and true advice and most of us have come to grips with the facts: When it comes to living a healthy life, you can't have one without the other. But have you ever wondered if you can work off that bowl of ice cream with a few extra miles on the treadmill? Or if you can avoid the gym altogether if you religiously calorie restrict? We have, too, so we turned to the experts in this field to find out the dirty truth about who wins the healthy living fight, diet or exercise.

Move it or lose it (or not)

Exercise is good for the mind and the body. Regular exercisers report better moods, stronger muscles and healthier hearts. So dedicating a daily hour at the gym is a no brainer, right? Not necessarily. Many people don't commit to this because it's a habit that needs to be formed. Once instilled it's hard to break, but getting there is the trick. In an article in Women's Health Magazine Timothy Church, M.D., Ph.D., director of preventive medicine research at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, says, "It's much easier to cut 500 calories than to spend an hour in the gym burning 500 calories every day."

It's a slippery slope to try to out-exercise bad food choices.

Christine Yu is a New York-based freelance writer, yoga teacher and author of the blog Love, Life, Surf. Yu is a committed athlete, but even given that status Yu is hesitant to give out-exercising bad food choices a seal of approval. She says, "It's a slippery slope to try to out-exercise bad food choices. There's a tendency to get stuck on a hamster wheel, constantly trying to outrun whatever you just consumed and never developing a healthy relationship with exercise or healthy eating. Exercise and the food you eat should be something that nourishes and fuels you — body and mind."

Diet or bust

Which brings us to diet. If there's ever been a word with a muddied definition, diet is it. What it should mean is the food we eat. But what it has turned into is a doled out punishment for the foods we can't, shouldn't, won't — and therefore do — eat. In an article in The New York Times Gretchen Reynolds, an author who focuses on the science of fitness, says that the all-too-often relied upon truth that exercise revs our metabolism so much and so fast that our calories instantly burn away and disappear is, sadly, untrue. She explains, "Repeated studies have shown that many people who begin an exercise program lose little or no weight. Some gain." She agrees with Church who says that calorie for calorie, it’s easier to lose weight by dieting than by exercise.

Calorie for calorie, it’s easier to lose weight
by dieting than by exercise.

A part of this has to do with the sheer number of times per day we need to make exercise choices versus food choices. Registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator Melissa Burton's work focuses on women’s health. She blogs about food, fitness, family and Duran Duran at The Valentine RD. Burton explains, "Ideally, exercise and a healthy diet go hand in hand but no one wants to hear that. Motivation to exercise isn't easy but exercise is usually a one-time decision per day and even a small effort makes a difference. Since we have to eat multiple times a day and the chances for making less healthy decisions are greater, in the battle between exercise or healthy eating choices, I'd say that healthy eating would be my primary focus if I had to choose. When you eat healthier, you fuel and refuel your body better which can positively impact your exercise."

Diet and exercise, a match made in (healthy) heaven

Your body needs food for fuel and exercise for mind and body strength. But on those slippery-slope days when you're fighting the good fight, an article in Real Simple says that what you focus on depends on what your goal is. If you want to lose weight or increase your energy, focus on your diet. If your goals are to reduce your risk of heart disease, keep your mind sharp or boost your libido, focus on exercise. But many women report clarity of mind with a shift in food choices and increased energy from even just half hour daily workouts further pointing to how married these two lifestyle choices are. And that's the bottom line here. In almost every healthy living case, diet wins and, for sure, for a quick fix like dropping a dress size, cut the calories. But for long-term weight maintenance and healthy living, you'll need to invest in both diet and exercise.

More on living a healthy life

Should you try a cleanse?
Alternatives to vegetable oil
Women, Food, and God: A book review