Exercise vs. Diet: Which Is Better at Keeping the Weight Off?

By Chris Centeno, MD /

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exercise or diet to maintain weight loss

Sometimes it can be easy to lose a little weight, but keeping it off can be a challenge. What does the latest science say about that? Should you diet or exercise to keep it off? Let’s dig in.

Weight-Loss Success! Now What?

So you’ve worked hard over the past year to lose weight, and you’ve hit your 10-pound, 30-pound, or maybe even 100+-pound goal. Great work! But now that you’ve done it, how do you maintain weight loss, or in other words, keep it off? The worst feeling after putting all that effort into losing weight to improve your health and well-being is to watch the numbers on that scale start to crawl back up. Unfortunately, more often than not, that’s exactly what happens, especially if an extreme diet is the only thing that helped you lose weight in the first place. If exercise was a part of your weight-loss journey, keep at it; you’re on the right track! If it wasn’t a part of your journey, now that the weight is off, if you want to keep it off, a new study suggests you better start working out…

High Levels of Exercise: The Key to Maintaining Weight Loss

The new study examined the effect of high levels of exercise versus diet restriction in participants who successfully maintained weight loss. Successful weight-loss was measured as those who maintained at least a 30-pound weight loss for more than a year. Two controls were used for comparison: those with ongoing normal weight (no weight loss and with similar BMIs as the weight-loss group) and those who were overweight or obese (with BMIs similar to the weight-loss group prior to their weight loss).

The results? The weight-loss group consumed and burned a similar number of calories as the obese group and significantly more than the normal-weight group; however, a much higher number of calories in the weight-loss group were burned off via high levels of exercise. The obese group, on the other hand, would be burning their energy in the process of naturally carrying more weight as they move throughout their daily tasks. How much more exercise did the weight-loss group get each day? Almost double when compared to the obese group:

  • Weight-loss group: 12,000 steps daily
  • Normal-weight group: 9,000 steps daily
  • Overweight/obese group: 6,500 steps daily

What does this all mean? In a nutshell, it means that those who are most successful at maintaining weight loss are those who participate in high levels of exercise. So if you had to choose between exercise or diet to keep the weight off, this study suggests exercise, and lots of it, is the way to maintain weight loss! Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between exercise and a healthy diet—just do both.

The Importance of Both Exercise and a Healthy Diet

Combining both a challenging exercise routine and a healthy diet provides a one-two punch for maintaining that weight loss you worked so hard for. Let’s review a few things I’ve covered about diet, exercise, and weight loss in the past:

The upshot? So get out there and exercise if you want to keep the weight off! You also likely need to control your diet a bit as well, but all things being equal, being active seems to trump Weight Watchers!

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Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications.
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