DIET VS. EXERCISE — WHAT SHOULD WE FOCUS ON THE MOST?
Here’s an interesting story: a recent study found that it’s far better to be fit and overweight than to be simply thin.
The study found that women who didn’t do any exercise — including the slim ones — were far more at risk for heart attacks, while women with some extra pounds but a generally fit body (thanks to exercise) were less at risk.
Sounds pretty straightforward, then: exercise is important. We know that!
But wait, hold on — ‘cause here comes another study. It turns out those same women who exercise — but are still overweight or obese — are up to nine times as likely to develop diabetes as women of normal weight.
So just a second here — how can anyone possibly win? Think about that equation again:
If you’re overweight but ‘fit’ = you’re at higher risk for diabetes, no matter how much you exercise.
If you’re slim but not ‘fit’ = you’re at risk for a heart attack, no matter how much you diet.
Both of these studies make sense, when you think that diabetes is more closely linked to diet, and exercise is a crucial factor in cardiovascular health. And in the end, they don’t really tell us much we don’t already know, deep down: there are serious consequences to being inactive and/or overweight, so a solution that only targets one of those areas is — by definition — incomplete.
WHY DIET & EXERICSE CAN’T BE ‘ONE OR THE OTHER’.
Let’s think about this in another way.
Small amounts of calorie cutting here and there (let’s say 400 calories of excessive junk food per day) can make a big difference — while a commitment to burn 400 calories a day can be much harder to pull off.
But this is missing the larger point, which is that there is no clear equivalency between ‘cutting 400 calories out of my diet’ and ‘burning 400 calories through exercise’.
While studies have shown that cutting out fatty foods will help you lose some weight — while plain old exercise sometimes won’t, especially for women who ignore their diet entirely — it’s still a mistake to see the two areas as mutually exclusive.
Never forget that burning 400 calories through good, balanced exercise — like a great mix of lifting weights and intensive cardio — contains benefits that go far beyond just those 400 calories burned.
GETTING RID OF THE ‘CALORIE COUNTER’ IDEA.
The ‘calorie’ counter on modern treadmills and elliptical machines is actually a pretty deceptive thing: it creates too clear a connection between exercise and calorie loss, and that leads to faulty conclusions when it comes to food, too. If a proper counter were (hypothetically) available, it would display all the other things happening to your body when you exercise.
Think about it: you would strap a magic device to your arm, and then go do some interval training one day, and some weights the next. Then, the magic device would tell you all about your increased lung capacity, your conversion of fat into lean muscle, your burning of calories even after you stopped exercising — everything but a simple ‘calorie’ count (I’m sure they’re working on it).
And the same thing applies for our diets, too. Counting calories (or fat, or protein, or carbs) is always going to be important, but slavishly counting just those categories ignores the crucial fact that some calories (or fat/protein/carbs) are far better than others.
Instead of just eliminating excess calories, try replacing them with clean, whole foods. Rather than counting everything you’re eating and measuring exactly how much is going in, use that mental energy on healthy recipes, more effort while shopping, or preparing great, filling lunches to take to work.
Just as exercise does countless things for our body that a ‘calorie count’ won’t reveal, eating healthy does too. It gets impossible to track all the great things you’re putting in your body by eating lots of spinach, using high-quality fats (like extra-virgin olive oil), and replacing white rice with quinoa.
FORGET EITHER/OR: A HOLISTIC, BALANCED APPROACH IS BEST.
But the point is — it all works. It’s all part of the same approach: treating your body as a holistic system that needs good, healthy attention from all angles — not just crash diets or burn-out marathons, but gradual, sustained, and long-term attention to eating well and being active, at the same time.
There is no magic ratio between diet and exercise, and study after study continue to prove that you can’t reap the benefits of one without suffering the negatives of another. So don’t! Keep a cool head, and realize that changing your body is something you need to do responsibly. There is no ‘choice’ between diet or exercise, despite what some people tell you.
To be healthy, you can’t have one without the other. But there’s one big advantage: tackling both at once is completely complimentary — the better you eat, the more you’ll want to work out, and the better you work out, the better you’ll want to eat.