Remember that last time you indulged in a greasy pizza or gigantic slice of cheesecake? Perhaps you assuaged your guilt by telling yourself that you’d soon be exercising away the negative health effects.
Unfortunately, the latest research shows that it doesn’t work that way.
A new study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that dietary quality still matters even in those who are extra vigilant exercisers. Let’s take a look at this latest research.
“Sensationalized headlines and misleading advertisement for exercise regimens to lure consumers into the idea of ‘working out to eat whatever they want’ have fueled circulation of the myth about ‘exercise outrunning a bad diet,’” the study authors wrote.
In other words, even a 10K run won’t cancel out an unhealthy diet. Conversely, that daily kale smoothie doesn’t give you a free pass to Lazy Town either.1
The researchers say you need both a healthy diet and regular exercise for the best health and longevity outcomes.
Diet + Exercise: Better Together
At the onset, researchers knew that some animal and human studies suggest that strenuous exercise can offset the effects of overeating.2,3 But this international team was not convinced. So, they poured over diet and exercise data from nearly 350,000 participants over a decade-long period.
The participants had a median age of 57 and were all healthy at the beginning of the study. Importantly, none had been diagnosed with conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, or chronic pain.
During the decade-long study, 13,869 participants died — 2,650 from heart disease and 4,522 from adiposity-related cancers.
“Participants with the lowest mortality risk were the ones with high levels of physical activity and high-quality diet consistently across all three outcomes: deaths from all causes, deaths from cardiovascular disease, and deaths from cancer,” explains Dr. Melody Ding, the lead author.
She adds that exercise still protects against mortality even if you’re a junk food junkie. But it is much better to have both exercise and a good diet.
What is Adequate Diet and Exercise
How did researchers define a high-quality diet? Basically, 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day, two or more servings of fish per week, less than two servings of processed meats per week, and no more than five weekly servings of red meat.
Unfortunately, the study did not measure discretionary foods like soft drinks or desserts.
As for exercise, participants were grouped by how many minutes per week they engaged in moderate or vigorous-intensity physical activity.
Vigorous physical activity was defined as ten minutes or more of exercise that would leave them out of breath. Moderate exercise included carrying light loads or biking at a steady pace.
Those people who boasted the highest levels of physical activity and the best quality diets had the lowest mortality risk. Those who engaged in an exercise that makes one sweat had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.
Dr. Ding says there’s no way around it: We need to both move our bodies and eat well.
“Diet and physical activity both affect health through many mechanisms,” she explains. “It is not just a matter of energy balance. We need to think beyond ‘whether I can burn off that cake through exercise.’ Eat and exercise for overall health.”
Finding Your Healthy Balance
What if your diet isn’t always high-quality or you take an exercise rest day from time to time?
Experts say if a person generally eats well, it’s OK to have a dessert occasionally. Just make sure that the overall context is healthy. Completely depriving yourself of favorites can set you up for failure.
If you’re dodging exercise because you hate running, for goodness sakes try walking or swimming. Do what you love and set modest goals. When you reach that goal, set a new one.
In the end, it’s worth the effort because your life depends on it!