Exercise training v calorie deficit diets: which is best to improve body weight & VAT fat?

adipose-tissue-typesVisceral adipose tissue (VAT) is the ‘bad fat’ around the internal organs and an identified culprit in cardio-metabolic diseases, hence an important target of exercise programmes and nutrition. Can exercise target VAT reduction?

This article is based on a research review (See the link in references at the bottom). In simple terms, their aim was to analyse the effects of aerobic exercise versus reducing calorie intake on body weight and visceral adipose tissue (VAT) reduction. in short, which works best to reduce VAT, exercise or diet?


Exercise training was defined as voluntary aerobic exercise at a low to vigorous intensity at least twice a week over a minimum of 4 weeks and with a minimum of 20 min per session. Hence, (unfortunately) resistance training was not included, neither was high intensity interval training.

Caloric restriction was defined as a daily reduction in calories of at least 10% of the habitual intake (2,000 kcal for women, 2,500 kcal for men) for a minimum of 4 weeks.


the results are taken from 8 separate research reviews on this topic and placed side by side for comparison.

Although a calorie reduction diet was shown to be more beneficial for weight loss, it was not in fact better for VAT loss. For VAT reduction, exercise was proven to be far superior. None of the research reviews were able to show that calorie deficit improved VAT reduction at all.

Although such ‘head-to-head’ comparison can be a little arbitrary at times (are we really seeking to determine which is ‘best’ therefore ignore the other?), it does provide some insight into how exercise prescription might affect our clients beyond markers we typically have access to. VAT can’t be directly measured easily although simple waist circumference (waist to hip ratio test) is not a bad substitute. Hence, it is reassuring to know that exercise (in this case aerobic) has health related body composition impacts beyond just weight lost on the scales, and provides a rebuttal to those who contest that exercise does not work for fat loss, but REPs knew that already.

If you would like us to perform a WHR test on you let us know the next time you are at a class.


This article is based on a research report: Obesity Review, 23 May 2016.

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