- New research shows that you can’t overcome the effects of a poor diet simply by exercising more.
- Regular physical activity and good eating habits go hand-in-hand when it comes to your long-term health and longevity.
- Physical activity and diet also play important roles in the prevention of many chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You can’t beat a bad diet.”
This phrase suggests that when it comes to calories, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to create a calorie deficit through exercise when you’re eating poorly.
However, according to a new study, that phrase also appears to be true in another sense: your mortality risk.
High levels of physical activity do not counteract the adverse effects of poor diet on mortality risk, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
A study conducted at the University of Sydney found that participants who had both high levels of physical activity and a quality diet had the lowest risk of death.
Compared to physically inactive participants with a poor diet, those with the highest levels of physical activity and a quality diet had a 17% lower risk of dying from all causes.
They also had a 19% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a 27% lower risk of certain cancers.
In other words? You cannot escape the effects of a poor diet simply by exercising more. Regular physical activity and good eating habits go hand-in-hand when it comes to your long-term health and longevity.
“This recent research makes a controversial argument,” says Dr. Brian Carson, sports psychologist at the University of Limerick and Head of Science and Innovation at WholeSupp.
“What you shouldn’t infer from this is that one should be prioritized or more important than the other. Both diet and physical activity are important to our health and there are synergies between them.”
How exactly do these two important lifestyle factors work together to ensure you live a long and healthy life? And more importantly, how can you use them to your advantage?
“Not only is food the fuel your body needs to produce energy, it also contains all the building blocks (the nutrients) needed to form new cells as old damaged ones are replaced,” explains Sophie Chabloz , MSc in Food Science , a nutrition expert and co-founder and CPO of Avea Life.
“However, fitness must not be left out of the health equation. It keeps your muscles and bones strong, keeps your heart beating healthy, and balances your moods and hormones.”
Physical activity and diet also play important roles in the prevention of many chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
“One of the most important — and most widely discussed — effects of diet and physical activity on our health is weight control,” says Carson.
“Excess fat is associated with the occurrence of many of the chronic diseases mentioned above.”
Beyond weight management, Carson says physical activity and diet can improve other aspects of your health, including regulating inflammation, immune function, and muscle mass, all of which can extend your lifespan.
The term “quality nutrition” is open to interpretation. According to Chabloz, the Mediterranean diet remains the gold standard for lifelong good health and low inflammation.
“It includes staples like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, nuts, legumes, and lots of olive oil, as well as small amounts of meat, eggs, and dairy,” she says.
Various studies have confirmed the link between the Mediterranean diet and good health. one
Beyond the Mediterranean diet, Chabloz says it’s beneficial to add some fermented foods for optimal gut health and choose unprocessed (preferably organic) foods as much as possible.
One of the most common reasons people don’t exercise regularly is lack of time.
Good news if you’re one of them: getting the recommended amount of exercise might be easier to achieve than you thought.
“The World Health Organization revised its physical activity guidelines in late 2020,” Carson said.
“For adults ages 18 to 64, it’s recommended that they achieve at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity,” he explains.
That can mean going for a 90-minute walk three days a week, playing outside with the kids for 30 minutes every night, or working up a sweat at the gym every other morning.
“It’s also recommended that you do strength or resistance training two or more days a week,” adds Carson.
Strength training is linked to better heart health, increased mobility, and stronger bones, so it’s good to add it to your current routine.
No matter how physically active you happen to be, Carson advises limiting sedentary time as much as possible, replacing it with an activity of any intensity.
Occasional exercise also counts, whether it’s climbing the stairs to work, walking to the bus, or doing chores around the house.
Now that you know what a quality diet looks like and how much exercise you actually need, how can you incorporate healthier habits into your daily routine?
Chabloz says to eat the rainbow.
“Foods that are brightly colored (think fresh fruits and vegetables, kidney beans, matcha, pure cocoa, etc.) are packed with antioxidants that help fight inflammation and oxidative stress,” she explains.
Therefore, one of the easiest ways to improve the quality of your diet is to put colorful, fresh foods on your plate.
It’s also important to make sure you’re getting enough high-quality protein and fat.
Chabloz says you can find protein in foods like legumes, lentils, and beans, as well as fish, eggs, poultry, and meat.
“Aim for 15-30g at each meal to keep your muscles and bones strong,” she advises.
You can find healthy fats in avocado, olive oil, salmon, nuts and seeds.
Start incorporating these foods into your diet to help balance your hormones and keep your skin supple, Chabloz suggests.
When it comes to exercise, Carson is an advocate of finding exercise that you actually enjoy.
“People often ask me what exercises to do. My response is usually to do what you’re most likely to keep doing,” he says.
“If there’s a sport you don’t enjoy, trying to pursue it will only have short-term benefits as you probably won’t stick with it.”
Once you find a type of exercise you enjoy, Carson advises finding ways to incorporate it into your routine. This may include sharing your workout plan with others.
“Exercise can be a social outlet. It could be an opportunity to spend time with friends who share a common goal, or much-needed time with family,” he points out.
“Instead of stepping back from these interactions, consider incorporating exercise with others into your overall routine.”
Above all, start small. Carson says one of the easiest things you can do to increase your physical activity is to limit the time you spend sitting.
“We did research at the University of Limerick and built up a body of evidence showing that sitting for long periods can negatively impact your health, regardless of your level of physical activity and training,” he says.
His advice? “Try to break up sitting with short ‘exercise snacks’ for even 2-3 minutes throughout the day.”
You can’t reverse the ill effects of a poor diet simply by adding an extra session to the gym or lifting a heavier weight.
For optimal health and longevity, you need both a quality diet and at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
Prioritizing both diet and fitness may feel like a tall order, but making a few small adjustments to your current routine might be easier than you think.