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Exercising Can’t Reverse the Impact of Unhealthy Diets, Shows Study

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Jul 20, 2022

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Image Credit: Dreamtime/PNGEgg

They say one can’t out-run a bad diet — turns out, there might be some truth to this adage. According to a new, large-scale study, exercising can’t compensate for an unhealthy diet — especially in terms of the latter’s adverse impact on long-term health and longevity.

Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the findings are derived from an 11-year-assessment of the diets and exercise patterns of 360,600 adults enrolled in the U.K. Biobank project. For this research, a “bad diet” was defined as one comprising “low fruit and vegetable intake, no fish, and lots of red meat, especially processed meat.”

The results suggested that the participants who engaged in high levels of physical activity while practicing a healthy diet had the lowest risks of death — with their mortality risk being reduced by 17% overall, compared to their counterparts who were not only physically inactive but also had poor diets. Not only that, the “healthier” participants were 19% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease, and 27%, of certain cancers.

“Both regular physical activity and a healthy diet play an important role in promoting health and longevity… 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,” explained Melody Ding from the University of Sydney, who was the lead author of the study. “I was secretly hoping for and expected a slight attenuation of the association between diet and mortality, but I did not find that.”


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“Independent of each other, both diet and physical activity are critical to health and longevity… if possible, try to do both things right,” Ding said.

The researchers concluded that physical activity and good dietary habits have complementary and interactive effects on “energy, lipid, glucose, and metabolic homeostatic processes.” Basically, exercise and a good diet go hand in hand.

Speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald, Dot Dumuid from the Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition and Activity at the University of South Australia, who wasn’t part of the study, noted, “[The study has] used data from one of the world’s biggest datasets and the results were robust when they repeated the analysis in various ways to avoid certain biases… It is not surprising that the best outcomes were seen among those with a healthy diet and an active lifestyle. Putting the two together is undoubtedly better than only having one.”

The findings have, essentially, debunked the myth that exercise can undo the impact of unhealthy diets. To put it into perspective, eating fries for lunch and dinner every day, just because one exercises a lot, isn’t a great idea. Like everywhere else, balance is key here too.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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