Exercise can’t compensate for a poor diet, study says

SYDNEY, Australia — Exercise alone won’t compensate for a poor diet, according to researchers from the University of Sydney. Even if you spend all day and night in the gym or running laps, you’re still better off steering clear of fatty, processed foods. Researchers conclude that high levels of physical activity do not counteract the detrimental effects of a poor diet on mortality risk.

Study authors add individuals who both exercised frequently and stuck to a healthy diet displayed the lowest mortality risks. In other words, that’s the way to go!

The team examined the independent and combined effects of diet and physical activity on all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and cancer mortality risk among a large collection of British adults (360,600). That data was provided by the UK Biobank Projectan ongoing, large-scale biomedical study monitoring participants’ biological, behavioral, and health fluctuations over time.

What does ‘eating healthy’ look like?

For the purposes of this study, researchers defined a high-quality diet as anything including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables daily, two portions of fish weekly, and an overall low consumption of red and processed meats.

In comparison to those who were either inactive and following a poor diet, people who exercised regularly and ate a healthy diet displayed a 17-percent lower all-cause mortality risk, a 19-percent lower cardiovascular disease mortality risk, and a 27-percent lower mortality risk associated with certain cancers.

“Both regular physical activity and a healthy diet play an important role in promoting health and longevity,” says lead study author Associate Professor Melody Ding from the Charles Perkins Center and the Faculty of Medicine and Health in a university release. “Some people may think they could offset the impacts of a poor diet with high levels of exercise or offset the impacts of low physical activity with a high-quality diet, but the data shows that unfortunately this is not the case.”

“Adhering to both a quality diet and sufficient physical activity is important for optimally reducing the risk of death from all causes, cardiovascular disease and cancers,” adds study co-author Joe Van Buskirk, from the School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health.

While earlier projects suggest intense exercise may help defend against detrimental physiological responses to overeating, the Australian team says the long-term nature of how diet and exercise interact with each other to dictate health outcomes remains woefully understudied. This work, at least, confirms the importance of exercise and quality diet in relation to all-cause and cause-specific risks of death.

“This study reinforces the importance of both physical activity and diet quality for achieving the greatest reduction in mortality risk,” Prof. Ding concludes. “Public health messages and clinical advice should focus on promoting both physical activity and dietary guidelines to promote healthy longevity.”

The study is published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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