Written by Dr Tim Leeming - Chiropractor & Exercise Nutritionist
To be healthy, all we need to do is exercise often and eat a healthy diet, right?
Last time I checked social media, all it said was that you need to have an exercise regime of 3 x CrossFit, 2 x running, 1 x hot pilates and a weekly Stand-Up Paddleboard yoga session. Plus, you have to eat a vegan diet that is biodynamic, honouring the rhythms of the sun and moon, and only drink water that is mixed in a 1:17 ratio with pink Peruvian rock salt. Alongside 90 minutes of daily transcendental meditation, with sunrise and evening balancing of the chakras, you’ll be healthy as you need to be. Oh, plus you must also take a quarterly trip to Bali, because it’s like a super healing and spiritual place where you’ll feel most connected. Too easy!
Ahh it’s a funny little world we live in, isn’t it? While the above is (somewhat) having a laugh, the complexity and layers to it aren’t all that unfamiliar for many of us just trying to do the right thing for our own and our family’s, friend’s and community’s health. Somewhere along the way, amongst the digital shitstorm of Instagram, Google, podcasts and audiobooks, living a healthy life got really confusing!
Perhaps one of the more poorly understood and misguided topics circulating out there in cyberspace is the relationship between exercise, food and overall wellbeing. Fair enough that it is not-so-well understood; depending how deeply you wish to understand it, it can be quite the course load. However, it can also be much easier to wrap your head around than social media currently makes it!
This little piece of writing is going to bust a few myths, so that you can better understand the role exercise plays in health and vitality, and how food fits into the equation. Ultimately, I hope you can read this and breathe a sigh of relief as you reconnect with the simplicity of moving, eating and being well!
The most important thing to understand is that the balance between diet and exercise for health (and body weight, though we here at The Nutrient Project typically don’t like to make the scales a focus) likely occurs at a ratio of 80:20 (food:activity). That is, 80% of it is food and 20% is exercise or energy output. As we are all quite unique, this 80/20 ratio is not rigid. I’d suggest it can drift 10-15% in either direction. For some, healthy function and an optimal body weight are achieved through around 65% dietary focus with 45% coming from physical activity. At the other end of the scale, some of us can achieve optimal health
through 95% diet and a minimal 5% of exercise with intent.
It’s true that you cannot exercise your way out of a bad diet, no matter who you are. Just because someone might look like Zac Efron in Baywatch, doesn’t necessarily mean their insides are in as good a shape. Looks can be very, very deceiving, and this is why we don’t rely on the scales to measure health.
Almost equally as important as understanding that food comes first in the intake/output equation, is knowing that exercise does not have to be high-intensity hard work! Just as social media got a little crazy with health care advice from all the best bloggers, our physical activity priorities have become heavily geared towards intense exercise. It just doesn’t have to be this way!
“No pain, no gain” and “sweat it out” aren’t always the answers.
Again, the way your body responds to various forms of physical activity is as unique and individual as your personal ratio of food:activity for best health. I have known a remarkable number of people to find highly intense exercise more damaging to their wellbeing and bodyweight than gentler modalities. They routinely respond to a 45-minute HIIT session by becoming systemically inflamed with an acute increase in bodyweight, they take days to recover, get injured often and suffer from a great deal of psychological distress from trying to self-motivate for the next session. I’ve seen the same in some individuals who choose to run for exercise.
For such people, you are probably a whole lot better off letting go of the pressure you feel from watching Instagram videos of famous ‘fitness experts’, and instead finding a tepid form of physical activity the stimulates your physiology in a healthful way. Perhaps it’s barefoot beach walking, hiking hills, heated (or not) yoga, aqua exercise (aerobics or jogging) or riding a bike. There are plenty of other, more creative ideas out there – typically administered by progressive and thoughtful professionals who recognise this need for slower, more gentle exercise in a particular facet of the population. I take my hat off to these health professionals.
The main caveat here is that you shouldn’t use the last paragraph as an excuse to not exercise a little harder from time to time. While a small proportion of us will probably benefit from exclusively gentle activity, the majority of us will respond best to a variation of some higher-intensity activities mixed with lighter modalities. A couple of gym sessions plus a longer walk and a yoga session to round out the week, for example.
Keep in mind that movement is movement – whether you are going for a walk for the point of getting some exercise, or you spend 20 minutes walking to work and another 20 walking home, it all adds up. Therefore, if you’re less active in your daily routine (of work or whatever you give most of your time to), you might want to consider more organised exercise per week (and how you’re fuelling yourself, of course!). If you’ve got an active day job, consider how active it is while you plan your weekly exercise sessions. Either way – active day job or opposite – it is pertinent that you move often! If you’re seated for much of the day, it pays to get up and move every 30-60 minutes, even if just for a few minutes.
The latest science is telling us that even if you blast a heavy training session before or after work and you eat only, if you sit all day you are at a significantly greater risk of poor heart and visceral health (the figures are as frightening as those for smoking).
So, hopefully by now it is making sense that eating well comes first and exercise doesn’t always have to be hard and intense. We’ve also pointed out that moving more and moving often throughout the day should be of higher priority than sweating it out at the gym for 45-60 minutes. A final point that I should make, as an exercise nutritionist in particular, is that timing can be everything.
To get the most out of your body following any exercise or activity that you do, it’s essential to consume something shortly after (aim for no more than 30-45 minutes post-activity). This ensures that you are replenishing micro and macro nutrient stores, promoting optimal physiology in the breakdown and clean-up of toxins, and the building and regenerating of healthy tissues!
If you struggle to eat anything after exercising, try to have something liquid or smooth that is still reasonably nutrient-dense. A smoothie, chia pudding or soft piece of fruit are all good options. Of course, it’s hugely important to look at what you are eating around exercise, but that is not the purpose of this article. With exercise, the general rules of eating real, whole foods that are varied in colour and quantity and minimally processed by humans still apply. You’ll find plenty of wonderful information throughout the rest of this website about wholesome and nourishing foods to fuel overall wellbeing!
Don’t be discouraged by what you see on social media, and don’t feel like you’ve got to physically punish yourself in the exercise arena to achieve any sense of health or optimum function. You’re not a contestant on ‘The Biggest Loser’. Know that movement (and not just organised physical activity) is essential for wellness, and this can be achieved in many ways!
The bottom line is, without good food to fuel your life, no matter how much you exercise, you simply won’t be as healthy as you can be.
If you’d like to ask me anything, or talk further about your own exercise, eating or overall health, just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s crazy, isn’t it, how what we are being told we need to do to lose weight and gain health, isn’t necessarily what’s going to help us. Expectations are set by certain industries and media outlets, that make us think we need to follow a certain regime to gain a certain result - and if we don’t, we’re doing it wrong. Let me try and explain what I mean. The current ideology is that if you eat less and exercise more, you will re-establish your health. Is this really addressing what’s wrong, though?
Let’s take the television show The Biggest Loser. Sure, it’s entertaining and may motivate people to snap into a mindset that they need to do something about their weight. However, shows like this only set unrealistic expectations on what is required to lose weight. Counting calories, weighing every meal, restricting food intake - is this healthy? Forcing exercise to the point of mental and physical exhaustion, sometimes nausea, blood, sweat and tears - is this healthy? After people watch this show, do they want to try and lose weight? Is this actually what needs to be done, to become healthy? No, it’s not.
You cannot exercise your way to health. Exercise does not address nutrient deficiencies or systemic inflammation (it can, but not entirely). Someone’s lack of exercise is not the reason they are sick, or overweight. Exercise certainly does help, but it is a small piece of the puzzle. Yet time and time again, we are being told that the reason our society has gotten to this point of illness and obesity is because we do not go to the gym.
Instagram is flooded with quotations of “no pain, no gain”, “the only barrier between you and your health is your gym”, “tears of pain is worth the gain” and “willpower is all you need”. As much as I support the inclusion of exercise and understand it’s a VITAL part of acquiring health, wellbeing, reducing stress (NOT ALWAYS), improving insulin sensitivity etc, I believe prioritising it as the main objective to acquiring health is ineffective. Also, forcing ourselves to exercise because “if you don’t feel pain, you won’t receive a gain” can be just as stressful to the body as not having done the exercise.
Willpower is NOT all you need. The idea that eating less and exercising more, which has been drilled into our brains by various industries, is not what you need to re-establish your health. We have been conditioned and introduced to foods such as excessive added sugars and processed flours that we are addicted to and have caused havoc in our bodies. Will forcing myself to leave the house at 5am before work when I really don’t want to, just so I don’t feel guilty that I didn’t go, help rectify the damage from these foods if I am still consuming them? You need a balanced nutrient dense diet, you need to reset your hormones, you need to take your body out of an inflammatory state, you need to reduce stress. You need to consume enough water and get enough sleep. And this is just the very beginning.
Eat a nutrient dense, whole food balanced diet. This needs to be the primary objective to achieving health and wellbeing. Other contributing factors cannot achieve the same results, nor have their mechanisms useful without the foundation of diet being established first.
With that being said, weight loss goes much further than your dinner plate. The culture of dieting, food obsession and cutting out food groups has a lot to answer for in terms of why we cannot shift weight but that's another article for another day. Before I say something I regret, I'll better articulate my words on this topic. It is a big one. Stay tuned.