If you’re a middle-aged couch potato in serious need of boosting your heart health, is it better to exercise or diet?
New research says dieting, exercising, or a combination of the two all get the job done about equally well. The real goals to lose some weight.
But the study authors added that exercising in tandem with dieting is probably the best way to go.
The researchers designed the three study interventions so people participating would drop about 7 percent of their body weight — through any method — over a roughly three-month period.
The study showed it didn’t seem to matter which intervention people chose to lose weight. Participants in all three groups saw their lifetime cardiovascular risk drop from 46 percent to 36 percent.
“Exercise and a low-calorie healthy diet are both known to improve risk factors for heart disease, even in the absence of weight loss,” said study lead author Edward Weiss. He’s an associate professor at Saint Louis University’s department of nutrition and dietetics, in Missouri.
“In light of this, we expected the combination of diet and exercise to have ‘additive effects’ on risk factors, and therefore expected greater improvements in the combined group, as compared to diet or exercise alone,” he said.
Instead, the study found that “the magnitude of benefit does not depend on whether diet, exercise, or a combination of diet and exercise is used to promote weight loss,” Weiss said.
What really seemed to matter was that people slimmed down.
For the study, investigators divided 52 overweight men and women into one of three groups: a diet group; an exercise group; and a combined diet and exercise group.
Dieters were instructed to cut 20 percent of their caloric intake, while exercisers were told to increase activity levels by 20 percent. The combination group was instructed to do both by 10 percent.
Weiss described a 20 percent caloric cutback as “modest for most people.” That equals a drop of about 300 to 500 calories per day — roughly the equivalent of two sugary sodas.
But “increasing calorie expenditure by 20 percent per day is more challenging,” he said. “Especially for the non-exercising men and women recruited for this study. Twenty percent translates to walking three to five miles, six to seven days per week. That’s a significant increase for someone not use to exercising.”
In the end, all three groups saw the same amount of improvement in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and heart rate.
But Weiss nevertheless suggested that a combined approach may be best.
The combination group lost weight more quickly. They were also more likely to stick to their goals, Weiss noted. About 30 percent of participants from the diet or exercise groups dropped out. But, only 5 percent of participants in the combination group quit.
Diet and exercise together may also have “additive benefits for other aspects of health,” Weiss said. For example, a bigger cut in type 2 diabetes risk was seen among those who embraced both approaches.
And for reasons not entirely clear, adding exercise to diet appears to specifically confer a cardiovascular advantage, he added.
“If two people have the same blood pressure, cholesterol, family history, age, etcetera, but one person exercises and the other does not, the non-exerciser is two-to-three times more likely to develop heart disease,” Weiss said.