Exercise vs. Diet

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Let’s say you’ve spent a couple months working on making your eating habits healthier … when should exercise come into the picture?

Whether you’re looking to lose weight or just get healthier, exercise is an important component. It’s usually best to start with one or the other, because making more than one change at a time tends to result in neither change sticking. And you can see the best results, in terms of weight loss, if you start with diet, simply because you can usually cut out more calories than you can burn if you’re a beginner.

So, start with diet, but do you need exercise? I would say yes, absolutely. Eventually. You can wait a few months to get started if you have too many other things going on, but eventually you’ll want to form the exercise habit. Here’s why:

  1. Exercise will help you get to your health goals — losing weight, gaining muscle, or just getting fitter and healthier.
  2. While cutting calories is important for weight loss and getting important nutrients also improves your health, exercise is important for many other health benefits: it makes your heart stronger and healthier, your brain functions better, your lungs get stronger, your muscles get stronger, your bones get stronger. These are all problems for many people, especially as they get older, and exercise helps with all of them.
  3. Exercise makes you feel better, more focused, more energetic. You’re happier if you exercise (over the long term, that is).
  4. Exercising often makes you more likely to stick to your healthy eating changes.

Can you do exercise and not worry about diet? Yes, for the short term — a few months or even longer. But eventually you’ll need both components if you want to be healthy — eating crap food all the time means you’re counteracting the effects of exercise, and you’re also going to be missing out on key nutrients, fiber and other things that keep you healthy.

So you need to do both! But you knew that.

The question then becomes how to incorporate exercise. Luckily it’s easier to tackle than exercise. That’s not to say the habit of exercise is easy — just easier than diet habits. That’s because your diet is often made up of a series of addictions and emotional eating habits that can be difficult to break, and if you focus on just one at a time it can take awhile. But exercise can be as simple as doing one single activity for a few minutes a day (at first), right after a trigger.

That sounds simple, of course, but there are obstacles — here are how to solve a few of them:

  1. You don’t have the time. If you can just carve out 2-5 minutes a day, that’s all you need to start. Don’t try to start with 30 minutes, or you’ll never find the time. Once you create the habit, you’ll learn to find more time to expand the habit.
  2. You’re too tired. Experiment with different times of the day to see when you have the energy. Also tell yourself that you just need to start — you don’t need to even go for 5 minutes. Just start — you can’t say no to that, even if you’re tired. What you’ll find is that it’s much easier to keep going once you start, and you’ll also find that exercise can invigorate you if you’re tired.
  3. It’s too hard. Again, just start. Just do a minute or two. You’ll get better at it, stronger, and it’ll get easier, so you’ll be able to do a little more every few days.
  4. You don’t know how. It’s not really important that you exercise the right way when you start. The most important thing is starting, so just give it a try (maybe watch a video or read an article on a blog first). You’ll learn from doing. Then read a little more and learn as you improve.
  5. You find it hard to stay motivated for very long. Do it with a friend. Get a coach. Join a class. Find a group in your area that meets up to do it. Find something that’s fun, like a sport. Focus on the social and fun aspects of it.

This month, if your eating habits are going well, feel free to take a stab at the exercise habit. It’s not mandatory or necessary, and we’ll go much more into it in a future course, but for now you are free to try a small exercise habit as you continue your eating habit changes or perhaps renew another habit like meditation. If you just start with a couple minutes, and you feel pretty good about your habit-changing skill, doing two tiny habits at once might have a decent chance at success — just monitor your motivation levels as you go, and leave yourself the option of dropping one habit.