A Healthy Lifestyle Requires Both Smart Food Choices and Exercise, New Study Shows

Regular exercise comes with numerous benefits, from a reduced risk of disease to stronger bones and muscles to improved brain health and cognitive functioning, but a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that exercise alone doesn’t ensure good health.

The study examined the relationship between diet and exercise, and how they can affect mortality rates over time. Using a population-based sample from the U.K. Biobank, researchers analyzed medical and health information from over 350,000 British adults, all of whom were deemed healthy at the onset of the study.

Through questionnaires, participants self-reported information related to their weekly physical activity routines and eating habits. Physical activity was measured in total minutes spent walking or engaging in other types of exercise. Eating habits were organized into categories based on the quality of the foods consumed. For example, a high-quality diet included at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day, two portions of fish per week, less than two servings of processed meats per week, and no more than five servings of red meat per week. It’s also important to note that the questionnaire didn’t address “discretionary eating,” which includes snacking, soft drinks, and dessert.

The results of the study showed that people who consumed high-quality foods and exercised regularly reduced their risk of dying from heart disease by 19 percent and from certain cancers by 27 percent, as well as reduced their overall mortality risk by 17 percent. The more physically active group also had a lower mortality risk, but this depended largely on the intensity of their workouts.

While these results are encouraging, the data did not show that exercise alone can offset the negative impact of poor food choices or that healthy food choices could negate the effects of lack of exercise. The study concluded that to reduce overall mortality risk, one must consume a high-quality diet that includes more whole foods and less red/processed meat, while also incorporating regular physical activity into one’s weekly routine.

A holistic approach to wellness that includes multiple health behaviors is key to maintaining a  healthy lifestyle. The good news is that making adjustments to your diet or physical activity routine doesn’t have to be disruptive. The Meatless Monday Challenge is a 12-week email series that introduces participants to plant-based recipes, shopping tips, and cooking techniques to help easily incorporate more plant-based foods into a diet. To engage in more physical activity during the week, try the Move It Monday Fit in Fitness Package, which includes a bunch of simple movements and low-intensity exercises that can help a person transition to a more active lifestyle, regardless of age or ability level. By easing into healthy habits this Monday, and recommitting to them at the start of each week, a person can develop a more consistent routine, and enjoy greater long-term benefits.