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Exercise vs Diet - Which is More Important?

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

One of the most common questions I am asked - after the inescapable “How do I get rid of this?” accompanied by a somewhat proud belly grab - is "which is more important: exercise or diet?" The answer I always give “well, you need both” feels like a cheap cop-out because, in reality, it isn't that simple and such a diverse topic warrants a longer answer. So, let's dive into the topic!

Which is more important: Exercise or Diet?

Well, you need both. You can’t out-exercise a bad diet and you can’t eat yourself into an athletic, functioning physique. Regardless of what you are trying to achieve, there must be a combination of the two as both directly (and indirectly sometimes) affect our overall health and fitness. In simplistic terms:

1. A healthy diet should provide the body with enough nutrients in order to operate optimally whilst maintaining healthy body composition.

2. A well-designed, balanced exercise programme should provide the body and mind with enough stress to promote adaptation, forcing the body to become stronger, more efficient and reducing the risk of injury.

As mentioned, an important point to consider is what you are trying to achieve. The nutritional and exercise requirements for someone who is trying to lose weight is different from the person who is trying to gain muscle. This being said, both need sufficient exercise to stimulate physiological improvements which help to facilitate their goals and both need sufficient nutritional support to allow their bodies to function in an efficient manner.


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So, where do calories come into things? Viewing a diet solely in terms of calories isn’t enough to achieve optimal levels of health. Eating a diet full of nutrient-dense foods should be your number one priority regardless of your caloric requirements. Once that has been achieved, you can then adjust your caloric intake to meet your needs.

Using the example above it is pretty obvious that the individual trying to lose weight will have to be in a calorie deficit where they consume fewer calories than they burn and the individual trying to gain muscle will have to do the opposite.

Remember, the key here is nutritional content and quality. 2000kcal of pizza and fizzy drinks are different to 2000kcal of nutrient-dense, high-quality, natural and varied foods. One will help your body to function healthily and the other won't. I don't have to tell you which is which!

And what about exercise? Again, using the example above, the exercise demands change depending on the individual's goals. The individual trying to lose weight will want to combine resistance exercises with some interval training to help promote some muscle growth - which increases your daily energy expenditure thus helping you lose fat - and to improve cardiopulmonary efficiency and fat mobilisation. The individual trying to gain muscle will place a greater emphasis on resistance exercises in order to build muscle.

Both individuals require sufficient nutrition in order to exercise to their full capacity and both individuals will struggle to achieve their goals if their diet doesn’t complement the demands of their training regime.

If your nutrient consumption is inadequate you run the risk of doing more harm than good when you exercise. As touched on previously, exercise works on the theory of supercompensation where the body recovers and adapts to the stresses placed upon it through physical exercise by becoming stronger, more resilient and more efficient. This requires bodily functions and new structures to be formed which, ultimately, require sufficient nutrients. If the nutritional requirements are not met, then the individual runs the risk of overtraining, injury and illness (1).

In addition to the physical benefits, a balanced diet and exercise regime can help to promote mental health benefits. (2) A deficiency in certain nutrients and minerals such as omega-3’s, B-vitamins, zinc, calcium and iron to name but a few, have been linked with certain disorders such as depression. (3) Exercise has also been shown to reduce anxiety and depression due to an increase in blood flow, improved cognitive function and an increase in the bodies capacity to deal with stress. (4) (5) Exercising also releases endorphins and other feel-good hormones which may help to relieve pain, stress and improve mood. (6)

Bottom Line

When it comes to health, fitness and wellbeing, regardless of your individual goals and needs, a combination of diet and exercise is vital. It’s not a case of 80% nutrition and 20% exercise or other variations of this “rule”. It’s 100% diet and 100% exercise. The human body isn’t a collection of individual components and systems. It is a complex, interconnected organism.

Consume a natural diet rich in nutrients and minerals, devoid of processed foods and exercise with the intention of improving your movement function.

See, I told you you need both!

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John Maitland is a personal trainer with over 15 years of experience. He has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEO's, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.

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