Which comes first – Exercise or nutrition?

The answer is very dependent on the individual and their current behaviors.

If you forced me to choose, I would choose nutrition (yes, the lesser of my expertise). As a society, we are accustomed to convenience food – psychologically and physically. I know individuals who do not eat vegetables. I know others who consume large quantities of Lean Cuisines. I worked in corporate America and had coworkers who ate fast-food EVERY DAY for lunch. I know individuals who do not cook. I know individuals who do not even own ovens or stoves with which to cook. I know individuals who do not eat. For most of these individuals, the best decision is to begin modifying nutrition.

Conversely, I know individuals who eat extremely well, but do not exercise. With a strong foundation in healthful nutritional habits, these individuals can focus on exercise and improved fitness.

There are the individuals who eat poorly and have never exercised, and managed to remain thin for most of their life. We all know someone like this. And then it hits – for women usually before or around menopause – unfamiliar weight gain. The naturally thin persons, having gained weight only at an older age, are probably my most challenging client population. They have never dealt with diets. Most have never stepped foot into a gym. You might think, “Great! A Blank Slate!” Sadly, not so great. Unless this client happens to also have a medical concern, it is incredibly difficult for the individual to see the need to alter nutrition. Having always been able to eat mindlessly – we are combating YEARS of unhealthy habits.

As humans, we do not like change. I know I do not like change. Change is hard. Imagine having had successful habits for 40+ years – and having me tell you that those once successful habits need to change because they are no longer tolerated by your body. You know it is true before I tell you, but you do not like the idea of change.

Further, in the Midwest, we are not afraid to work – we will work hard, for gain or no gain, because that was how we were raised. This same client, she will work her bum off during the 2-3 hours she spends with me at the gym each week. She will even work her bum off at the other activities I assign for her. But she will eat just the same as she has always eaten – and she will fight me tooth and nail on nutritional changes. Her results? The chances are she will not lose any weight.

Why are nutritional changes more difficult?

Have you ever thought about why nutritional changes are so much more difficult than increasing physical activity?

The act of eating involves its own reward system – as we digest and sugar enters our blood stream, our happy hormones (e.g., dopamine) are released into the brains reward center. Food makes you feel good – psychologically speaking. The positive feeling reinforces our eating behaviors (whether we realize it or not). Most individuals eat 5+ times a day – and have for their entire lives. Eating is a solidly established habit (i.e., behavior). Nutritional changes require behavior modifications; whereas, increased physical activity more often than not requires behavior increases or additions.

Often times, individuals can exhaust undesired behaviors through extinction and/or completely avoiding the behavior. Example, quitting smoking cold turkey. While this is not easy – it is easier that trying to change a behavior that you MUST engage in 5+ times a day. You must eat. Sometimes you have to learn to eat more often than you ever have before – meaning that you have more exposure to your food triggers.

Which comes first? ‘Stability’ skills

Research shows that most individuals do not maintain a weight loss for a significant period of time. This can be attributed to the perspective that it takes so much work to maintain a ‘deprived state’ (Kernan et al., 2012). Researchers taught individuals stability skills (i.e., being savvy, enjoying healthy lifestyle habits, making peace with the scale, and fine tuning lifestyle habits) prior to entering a behavior-based weight loss program. Results at six and twelves months showed that the individuals who learned stability skills had greater maintenance success than those who did not learn the skills.

What does this mean, you ask? They educated individuals on the basic principles of energy balance, nutrition, and physical activity (i.e., being savvy) prior to beginning weight loss. Knowledge is powerful! Individuals also began making small changes to nutrition – without necessarily depriving their minds or bodies – allowing their bodies and minds to adjust to the changes. Small steps like these can make big change a whole lot less earth shattering!

The bottomline 

First, change does not happen over night. Sometimes we have to make little changes on our way to a big change. I liken this to my need to ween myself from 2% milk – first to 1% and finally skim. Second, education is the first step to change. Learn about nutrition and small changes you can make – adding vegetables to each meal? – and move forward with confidence!


Kiernan, M., Brown, S. D., Schoffman, D. E., Lee, K., King, A. C., Taylor, C. B., Schleicher, N. C., & Perri, M. G. (2012). Promoting Healthy Weight With “Stability Skills First”: A Randomized Trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030544.

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