It sounds like a riddle. If one person just cuts calories and someone else just increases the amount of time spent on exercise, who will lose weight first?
The answer: The person who cuts calories will lose weight more quickly, provided they cut out enough calories to get results. But that’s not to say that exercise isn’t an important part of your weight-loss efforts. Although exercise may take longer to show results on the scale, people who exercise burn more calories even when they’re at rest and tend to be able to maintain the weight loss.
Here’s why cutting calories may give you more immediate results, but exercise is vital for long-term success.

Weight Loss: A Short-Term Fix
Experts recommend that you aim to lose one to two pounds a week to reach your weight- loss goal. Because 3,500 calories equals a pound, you need to create a 500-calorie deficit each day — either by eating fewer calories, burning off the calories with exercise, or a combination of both — to lose one pound by the end of one week. People tend to choose dieting over exercise, and that may be because they see quicker weight-loss results. Here’s why:
  • Burning 500 calories a day through exercise can be a challenge for some people. Someone who weighs 170 pounds would have to walk for more than an hour — 67 minutes — at four miles per hour to burn 507 calories.
  • It may be relatively easy to cut 500 calories out of your diet. That’s equal to a large order of French fries at a fast-food restaurant. Or a chocolate-glazed doughnut and a small mocha latte. If you tend to have these types of indulgences every day, simply eliminating them from your diet should enable you lose about a pound a week.
However, dieting alone doesn’t usually help people lose weight and keep it off. When you eat less, your metabolism slows, which means you burn fewer calories throughout the day. Once you begin eating more, it’s easy to put the pounds right back on.
The solution: Keep your metabolism revved up with exercise while you cut calories.
Weight Loss: Long-Term Results
There’s a very important reason to exercise while you’re cutting calories: You could lose muscle if you don’t, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, wellness manager for the Lifestyle 180 program at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio. Muscle — which you build by doing both cardiovascular activities, like walking, and strength training, like lifting weights — burns more calories than fat, so it’s important to build muscle as you lose weight.
Perhaps that’s why people who lose weight are better able to keep it off when exercise is part of the weight-loss plan. Among those on the National Weight Control Registry who lost weight and maintained their weight loss for at least one year, the majority — 89 percent — did it through both diet and exercise. Only 10 percent were able to do it through diet alone, and only 1 percent did it with exercise alone.
Weight Loss: How Much Exercise Is Enough?
Kirkpatrick recommends cutting about 250 calories a day from your diet, while burning 250 calories a day through exercise. For the average person, that means walking two and a half to three miles, depending on how much you weigh and how fast you’re moving, Kirkpatrick says.
“I don’t want people to lose sight of how important exercise is,” Kirkpatrick emphasizes. Research shows that getting 30 minutes a day, even if you break it into three exercise sessions that last 10 minutes each, helps you lose weight and gain all of the health benefits of weight loss.