For a lot of people, making conscious choices in the name of health requires a lot of effort. It’s hard to pass up takeout at the end of a long day and it’s even harder to find the motivation to go to the gym. What does manage to keep most on the right track is seeing the results of their efforts in their changing physique.
But if the physical (and visual) rewards of your efforts aren’t immediately evident, or they stall, that could be enough to set you off course. This is why getting in shape — whether that means losing weight and getting defined muscles or being able to climb a flight of stairs without huffing and puffing along the way — requires a combined effort.
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“Physiologically speaking, to lose weight, you have to burn more than you eat. It requires a 3,500-calorie deficit to lose a pound,” says Meg Sharp, director of personal training for the Cambridge Group of Clubs. “This can be done through either diet or exercise alone, but the human body is complicated. It’s a bit of an oversimplification that you can choose to either burn your calories or reduce their intake.”
While she says it is possible to lose weight by choosing one of those health methods, the ideal is to combine them because they tend to work in tandem.
Assuming your first course of action is to address diet changes, Sharp says as long as you’re creating a calorie deficit of roughly 500 (up to 1,500) calories per day, you can expect to see anywhere from a one- to three-pound weight-loss in the first week. And the more you continue to create that 3,500-calorie deficit, the more pounds you’ll shed.
In fact, if your diet consists largely of refined and processed foods that are high in sodium, and you cut those out, you could even notice a difference within a day or two. That’s because your body is de-bloating, Grant Weeditz, a Miami-based strength and conditioning specialist, said to U.S. News.
“It doesn’t really matter how you do it, whether it’s because you reduce your carbohydrate intake and increase your protein consumption [which will have a diuretic effect], or you stop drinking alcohol, as long as there’s a deficit, you will see short-term weight loss,” Sharp says.
However, the key here is that the results will be short-lived. A UCLA study found that while dieters can expect to lose five to 10 per cent of their starting weight in the first six months of their diet plan, one-third to two-thirds of those dieters will regain more weight than they lost within four to five years.
“If you look at people who lose a lot of weight through diet alone and compare them to those who do it through diet and exercise, the latter group has better gains,” Sharp says. “That’s because exercise increases lean tissue mass, preserves your metabolism, increases energy, reduces stress and decreases cortisol, which we know is key to weight loss.”
This is hard to answer definitively, Sharp says, because it depends on so many factors. It is possible to lose weight by exercising and not changing your diet, although it won’t be much.
“You would see an increase in muscle tone and you might see a small reduction in weight, but you can’t exercise past a bad diet.”
Dick Thijssen, a professor of cardiovascular physiology and exercise at Liverpool John Moores University, estimates that three to four months of exercising without altering your diet would only result in an approximately two-pound weight loss.
Then there’s the issue that many people overestimate how much they exercise and underestimate how many calories they’re consuming. Combine that with the fact that exercise, especially cardio, tends to increase appetite, and the results could be the opposite of what you hoped for.
However, you may find that even if you’re just exercising and not making any changes to your diet, what lands on your dinner plate may start to change.
“When someone exercises, their stress levels go down, they sleep better and have better self-esteem. They feel like an athlete and as a result want to eat like one, too,” Sharp says.
Much like the diet-only scenario, this combination will produce an immediate loss of one to three pounds in the first week, but that will escalate considerably by week four.
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“At the four- to six-week mark, theoretically you could see anywhere from four to 18 pounds of fat loss,” Sharp says. “Resistance training and cardio combined will start to promote lean tissue building. You won’t see huge changes in your body composition [meaning, you won’t be ripped], but you will lose fat.”
By following this routine, she says you can expect to see an entire percentage of body fat lost per month. Significant weight loss and muscle gains will take approximately eight weeks to see, however, even though you’re not seeing muscle definition, the benefits going on in your body and mind are considerable.
“Your clothes will fit better, your posture will be better and you’ll walk taller,” Sharp says.
In the realm of exercise, trainers will always err on the side of resistance training, because that’s what will create the most change in your body through building lean muscle tissue.
“If you were only to do cardio and diet, you’d lose weight, but your metabolism would be compromised. Resistance training has a protein-sparing effect in that it doesn’t like for protein to be metabolized for energy. Cardio doesn’t make the same distinction — if you’re running and you’ve burned up all your carbohydrate stores, your body will start leeching from your fat and protein stores,” Sharp explains.
That’s not to say cardio isn’t beneficial; it’s great for your heart and lungs, but don’t rely on it to give you a lean, defined physique.
“Cardio is about overall health, but a combination of diet and resistance training is what will make the most morphological change.”
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