If I’m being completely honest, my main motivation to exercise used to be so I could eat whatever I wanted without feeling guilty. I believed the “logic” that if I put in more effort at the gym, then I wouldn’t have to change my eating habits, and could enjoy a nice big bowl of ice cream whenever I wanted without any shame. Anyone else follow that same line of thinking?
While there are a variety of unhealthy perspectives laced in that logic that we can perhaps unpack another day, today I want to specifically discuss why focusing only on exercise, and trying to forgo nutrition, isn’t going to help you achieve your physical goals.
First and foremost, I think it’s significant to point out what feels like the obvious, but is often overlooked: there are multiple aspects of living a healthy life. Exercise is an important part of it. But it is not the only part. Exercise, nutrition, hydration, sleep, self care/stress management, social support, stretching, and rest all together make up our overall health. So when we overvalue just one or two aspects, we could still be living unhealthily if the rest are left by the wayside. For example, you could work out consistently every single day of the week, but still be unhealthy if all you eat is innutritious junk. Or you could be eating whole, real foods every meal of the day, but if you are overwhelmed with stress and only getting 4 hours of sleep a night, would you really consider yourself at your peak level of health?
Each of these aspects takes ongoing effort and attention, which can feel daunting to a lot of us. So we can try to focus on just one aspect at a time, and ignore the rest, because that’s all we can manage. But then we risk the others suffering. However, jumping headfirst into changing every single one of these areas all at once is not typically the most sustainable approach either. We’re all about small steps in order to make sustainable changes to work towards the healthiest versions of ourselves. So we are going to spend the next few weeks talking about each of these aspects of health to help encourage us all to do so.
Now, exercise on its own has incredible benefits. It’s imperative for keeping your body functioning well, giving you stamina, strength, flexibility, and more. But in order to effectively exercise, our body also needs to be fueled well - and that’s where nutrition comes in. In fact, nutrition is often considered to be far more significant for our health (and for weight loss) than exercise even is.
This example adapted from verywellfit.com spells it out best: Let’s say Susan exercises consistently with 3-4 weight training sessions and 3-4 cardio workouts per week, totaling a max of 8 sessions per week. That gives her 8 opportunities to make a positive change in her body through exercise in a week. Now Susan also eats 3 meals per day, meaning she has 21 opportunities per week to directly and positively impact her body through nutrition. You don’t have to be a mathematician to recognize that 21 opportunities is going to hold more weight than 8. It’s not to say that those 8 don’t matter, but it is important to accept that our nutrition has far more influence on our overall well-being than some give it credit for.
A common misconception is that exercise and nutrition can be a trade off. For example, if I went for a 20 minute run today then I earned the pizza I plan to have for dinner tonight. Or, since I exercised every weekday this week, I earned a “cheat day” over the weekend on my nutrition. It all balances out, right? But the truth is, in general the calories we burn in a workout usually do not zero out the calories we consume with a not-so-good diet, especially because it’s far easier to consume a large number of calories very quickly, and much harder to “burn them off.”
Our nutrition and exercise habits have a much more intimate relationship beyond using each other as an excuse to negate the other. They go hand in hand in a few different ways.
Food as Fuel
Having a well balanced approach to nutrition is what can help you get the calories and nutrients your body needs to fuel and replenish throughout your daily activities (including exercise). The nutrients we take in help determine the kind of output we are able to give. And if we are exercising regularly, it makes it all the more important that we are fueling ourselves well so we can sustain our routine. A good way to look at it is to eat to support your training, because if you don’t, you risk lower levels of energy, performance, and motivation for your workout. And if you can’t put as much into the output of your calories, then it debunks the calories in vs. calories out cycle even further because you aren’t effectively burning as much. In order to get the most out of your workouts, you need to feed your body the kind of foods that will help you endure and get stronger.
Food as Replenishment
Just like we need food to prepare for exercising, we also need food to recover from it. We use up a lot of our bodies’ resources when we exercise, so it is important to replenish them so we can get the most benefit from the work we put in. Also, when we exercise, our brain triggers a signal in our bodies that tells them to eat more in order to recover - so really you are going to find a way to replenish yourself one way or another. But if you end up replenishing with a stop at the first drive-thru you see on your way home from the gym, you are going to consume more calories than necessary, which will lead to weight gain. You want to refuel with nutrient dense food, otherwise you could end up feeling constantly hungry, leading you to consume even more excess calories.
Food as Health
Ultimately, what we eat affects our everyday health - whether we exercise or not. It affects how we feel today, tomorrow, and the rest of our lives. Think of how you feel after you eat a more-than-indulgent meal full of processed food. It can lead to bloating, sluggishness, and overall digestive issues that in some way or another affect your day-to-day well being. Not to mention how regularly engaging with a poor diet is linked with major health risks that lead to illnesses like heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer - no matter if you are at a healthy weight or not. On the flip side, think of how you feel after eating a nutritious meal - possibly more energized, more clear-headed, more stabilized hunger levels, more stabilized mood, and more. When you choose smarter, more nutritious foods for your body (especially combined with physical activity) you can more attainably reach and maintain a healthy weight, protect yourself from those risky health problems, and increase your overall health.
It’s a shame how many people can overemphasize the importance of exercise, while underemphasizing the importance of good nutrition. Doing so can lead to an unhealthy relationship with both. But instead, we want to help people be freed up to enjoy both. This post said it well: “exercise is what sustains weight loss, but a supportive nutrition plan is what drives it.” In order to work towards our health goals, and in order to live all-around healthy lives, we must place a level of importance on all aspects of our health, and that includes both exercise AND nutrition. It may feel like a lot to take on, but at Worth the Work Fitness we can help simplify the process and support you through it. Just head on over here to find out more about both the exercise and nutrition services we offer.
Written by Kelly Pruim