You Can’t Exercise Your Way Out of an Unhealthy Diet
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You Can’t Exercise Your Way Out of an Unhealthy Diet

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Even if you exercise regularly, a new study finds that having an unhealthy diet can still increase your risk of several diseases and early death. Rob and Julia Campbell/Stocksy United
  • New research finds you can’t outrun the effect of a poor diet by simply exercising more.
  • Regular physical activity and good dietary habits go hand in hand when it comes to your long-term health and longevity.
  • Physical activity and diet also play a major role in the prevention of many chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and cardiovascular diseases.

You’ve likely heard the phrase ‘You can’t out-train 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, it appears this phrase rings true in another sense too: 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 both 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 mortality risk that was reduced by 17% from all causes.

They also had a 19% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and 27% percent from certain cancers.

In other words? You can’t outrun the effects of a poor diet simply by exercising more. Regular physical activity and good dietary habits go hand in hand when it comes to your long-term health and longevity.

“This recent research sets up a controversial argument,” says Brian Carson, PhD, exercise psychologist at the University of Limerick and head of science and innovation at WholeSupp.

“What should not be taken from it 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 you live a long and healthy life? And more importantly, how can you work them to your advantage?

“Food is not only 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 being replaced,” explains Sophie Chabloz, MSc in food science, a 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 a healthy heart pumping, and balances your moods and hormones.”

Physical activity and diet also play a major role in the prevention of many chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and cardiovascular diseases.

“One of the major – and most widely debated – ways diet and physical activity impact our health is through weight control,” says Carson.

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

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

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

“It includes staples such as 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. One study conducted in 2006 found eating a Mediterranean-style diet lowered cardiovascular risk factors.

In a 2011 study, the 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 (preferably organic) foods as much as possible is beneficial.

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

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

“The World Health Organization revised their physical activity guidelines in late 2020,” Carson points out.

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

That might mean walking for 90 minutes three days a week, spending 30 minutes every evening playing outdoors with the kids, or getting sweaty every other morning in the gym.

“It’s also recommended to engage in strength or resistance training on 2 or more days a week,” adds Carson.

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

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

Incidental exercise counts too, whether it’s climbing the stairs to work, running to catch your bus, or doing the household chores.

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


Chabloz says to ‘eat the rainbow’.

“Food that has a vibrant color (think fresh fruits and veggies, kidney beans, matcha, pure cacao, etc.) is full of antioxidants that help fight inflammation and oxidative stress,” she explains.

Therefore, one of the easiest ways you can improve the quality of your diet is by adding colorful, fresh food to your plate.

Ensuring you eat enough high-quality protein and fat is key too.

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 30g at every meal to keep your muscles and bones strong,” she advises.

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

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


Where exercise is concerned, Carson is an advocate of finding exercise you actually enjoy.

“People often ask me what exercise they should do. My answer typically is to do the one that you are most likely to keep doing,” he says.

”If there is a type of exercise you don’t enjoy, then trying to pursue that will only have benefits in the short term as you are unlikely to sustain it.”

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

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

“Rather than taking away from these interactions, consider building exercise with others into your overall routine.”

Above all else, start small. Carson says 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 conducted research at the University of Limerick as well as building a body of evidence that shows sitting for long periods can negatively impact your health, independent of your physical activity and exercise,” he says.

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

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

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

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