Can’t exercise to get out of an unhealthy diet

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Even if you exercise regularly, a new study finds that eating an unhealthy diet can still increase your risk of various diseases and early death. Rob and Julia Campbell/Stocksy United
  • New research finds that you can’t overcome the effect 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 an important role in preventing many chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘You can’t train better than 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 eating poorly.

However, according to a new study, it seems that this phrase also rings true in another sense: your mortality risk.

According to new research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, high levels of physical activity do not counteract the detrimental effects of a poor diet on mortality risk.

A study conducted at the University of Sydney found that participants who had high levels of physical activity and a high-quality diet had the lowest risk of death.

Compared to physically inactive participants with poor diets, those who had the highest physical activity and a high-quality diet had a 17% reduced risk of mortality from all causes.

They also had a 19% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 27% lower risk of death from certain types of cancer.

In other words? You can’t 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 case,” says Brian Carson, PhD, an exercise psychologist at the University of Limerick and director of science and innovation at WholeSupp.

“What should not be removed is that one should be prioritized or is more important than the other. Both diet and physical activity are important for our health and there are synergies between them”.

So how exactly do these two important lifestyle factors work together to ensure that you live a long and healthy life? And, more importantly, how can you use them to your advantage?

“Food is not just the fuel your body needs to produce energy, it also contains all the building blocks (the nutrients) that are needed to make new cells, as old damaged ones are replaced,” explains Sophie Chabloz, MSc in science. of food. , nutrition expert and co-founder and CPO of Avea Life.

“However, fitness cannot be left out of the health equation. It keeps your muscles and bones strong, keeps your heart beating healthy, and balances your mood and hormones.”

Physical activity and diet also play an important role in preventing many chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

“One of the main, and most debated, ways that diet and physical activity affect our health is through weight management,” says Carson.

“Excess fat is associated with the onset of many of the aforementioned chronic diseases.”

Beyond weight management, Carson says that physical activity and diet can improve other aspects of your health, including regulation of inflammation, immune function and muscle mass, which can extend your lifespan.

The phrase “high-quality diet” is open to interpretation. In Chabloz’s opinion, the Mediterranean diet remains the gold standard for good health and low inflammation throughout life.

“Include staples like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, nuts, legumes, and lots of olive oil and small amounts of meat, eggs, and dairy,” she says.

Various studies have confirmed the links between the Mediterranean diet and good health. A to study conducted in 2006 found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet reduced cardiovascular risk factors.

in a 2011 studyThe Mediterranean diet appeared to prevent the development of type 2 diabetes.

Beyond the Mediterranean diet, Chabloz says adding some fermented foods for optimal gut health and choosing unprocessed foods (preferably organic) as much as possible is beneficial.

One of the common reasons people cite for not exercising regularly is lack of time.

Good news if you’re one of them: Getting the recommended amount of exercise may be more doable than you thought.

“The World Health Organization revised its physical activity guidelines at the end of 2020,” Carson notes.

“For adults ages 18 to 64, it’s recommended to get at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week or 75 to 150 minutes of more vigorous activity,” he explains.

That could mean walking 90 minutes three days a week, spending 30 minutes every night playing outside with the kids, or breaking a sweat every other day at the gym.

“Participating in strength or resistance training 2 or more days a week is also recommended,” adds Carson.

Strength training is linked to better heart health, increased mobility, and stronger bones, so it’s a good thing to add to your current routine.

As physically active as you are right now, Carson advises limiting sedentary time as much as possible by replacing it with activity of any intensity.

Incidental exercise counts, too, whether it’s taking the stairs to work, running to catch the bus, or doing housework.

So now that you know what a high-quality diet looks like and understand how much exercise you really need, how can you incorporate healthier habits into your daily routine?


Chabloz says to “eat the rainbow”.

“Foods that are vibrantly colored (think fresh fruits and vegetables, 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 add fresh and colorful foods to your plate.

Making sure you eat enough high-quality protein and fat is also key.

Chabloz says you’ll find protein in foods like legumes, lentils, and beans, as well as fish, eggs, poultry, and meat.

“Aim for 15 to 30 g at each meal to keep your muscles and bones strong,” he advises.

As for healthy fats, you’ll find them in avocado, olive oil, salmon, nuts, and seeds.

Start adding these foods to your diet to balance your hormones and keep your skin supple, suggests Chabloz.


When it comes to exercise, Carson advocates finding exercise that you truly enjoy.

“People often ask me what exercise they should be doing. Usually my response is to do what you’re most likely to keep doing,” she says.

“If there’s a type of exercise you don’t enjoy, then trying to do it will only have short-term benefits, as you’re unlikely to stick with it.”

Once you’ve found a type of exercise you enjoy, Carson advises finding ways to incorporate it into your routine. This could include sharing your exercise plan with others.

“Exercise can be a social outlet. It can be an opportunity to spend time with friends pursuing a common goal, or much-needed family time,” she notes.

“Instead of eliminating these interactions, consider including exercising with others in your overall routine.”

Above all, start small. Carson says that one of the easiest things you can do to increase your physical activity is to limit the amount of time you spend sitting.

“We have carried out research at the University of Limerick and have created a body of evidence showing that sitting for prolonged periods can have a negative impact on health, independent of physical activity and exercise,” he says.

His advice? “Try to break up sitting with short ‘exercise snacks’ for 2-3 minutes throughout the day.”

You can’t undo the ill effects of a poor diet simply by doing an extra session at the gym or lifting heavier weight.

You need both a high-quality diet and at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week for optimal health and longevity.

Prioritizing both diet and fitness may seem like a tall order, but by making a few small adjustments to your current routine, it may be easier than you think.

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