Nutrition

Which Is More Important: Diet or Exercise?

5 min read

The answer is…complicated.
The answer is…complicated.

In the hierarchy of your wellness routine, where do diet and exercise fall? Do you prioritize breaking a sweat every day, or make more of an effort to fill your plate with a range of nutritious, whole foods?

If your answer is “all of the above,” you passed the test: In truth, it’s really difficult to rank diet or exercise higher than the other, because they’re both equally important components of foundational health. And when you combine the two in a consistent way? That’s a long-term habit partnership we should all get behind.

“A healthy diet alongside regular physical activity is an important determinant of overall health status,” says Dr. Nima Alamdari, PhD, a physiologist and Ritual’s Chief Scientific Officer. “The combination is most beneficial: The whole is more than the sum of its parts for promoting health and providing support in later life.”*

So, yes: Both regular activity and a balanced diet are, on their own, crucial parts of a well-rounded daily regimen. But the tricky thing is when we tend to prioritize one, at the detriment of the other. In a Ritual survey, for example, men ranked exercise to be twice as important as diet overall—yet according to CDC data, men’s diets are falling behind in key areas like fruit, vegetable, and whole grain intake. What if we shifted our priorities a bit to focus on both in equal measure?* (1,2)

The importance of diet

First up: A little bit of nutrition 101. The idea that we need food as basic sustenance is…well, a little obvious. But to go a tiny bit deeper, the specific food choices we make every day really do make every difference. To function properly, our bodies need a careful balance of macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)—and we should be aiming to meet the majority of those needs through the foods we eat.

Each of those macronutrients and micronutrients have different jobs to do—depending on the specific nutrient, that could be anything from supporting normal immune function and brain health to blood-building and normal energy-yielding metabolism. And in many cases, these nutrients are multitaskers in the body.*

Fruits, veggies, and other whole foods are some of the best resources for these kinds of nutrients, which is why filling your plate with a healthy variety should be a no-brainer for covering the majority of your daily intake needs. “Following a healthy eating pattern and paying attention to food and nutrient components is an important strategy for anyone, at any life stage,” adds Dr. Nima. That also means limiting processed foods with little to no nutritional value, like sodas, fast food, and other “empty calorie” options—even if you think you’ve “earned it” from a tough workout.* (More on that in a minute.)

The importance of exercise

Researchers have long since demonstrated the link between consistent movement and overall wellbeing. For starters, regular exercise has been shown to be a key component of “successful” aging: that is, supporting your body in a way that allows you to live your life the way you want to. And while the physical impact of moving your body and getting your blood flowing is undeniable, that’s not even to mention some of the mental health benefits scientists have zeroed in on.* (3,4)

That said, there are so many ways to get moving—and it’s helpful to understand that not all exercise is created equal. Aerobic exercise (aka “with oxygen”) is the kind that really gets your heart pumping for a sustained amount of time—think running, walking, jump-roping, swimming, and other forms of cardio. Then there’s anaerobic exercise (“without oxygen”), which is more about targeting your muscular system in shorter bursts: sprinting, weight-training, and more. Both are beneficial in different ways, and the most well-rounded exercise routines will include a balance of both.* (5)

On the other hand, the best form of exercise for you is probably whatever will get you inspired to stick with the habit for the long-term: whether that’s a tough spin class, an hour of yoga, long walks through your neighborhood, or a little bit of all of the above.

How diet and exercise work together

As Dr. Nima says, healthful eating habits are just one key part of a healthy lifestyle—and on the flip side, we can’t out-exercise a bad diet, either. We need both of these things, together.*

If you think about it, diet is actually a really important ingredient to a solid exercise routine. Muscle synthesis (the process of building muscle mass) wouldn’t happen without the help of macronutrients and micronutrients that we get through our diets. Again, these nutrients all play different roles in supporting our entire body, from our heart to blood to bones—we need that fuel to function properly, and that includes exercise.* (6)

Or if you’re thinking with the future in mind, you might consider those who reside in Blue Zones, aka the areas of the world where people live the longest, most healthful lives: While these regions span different cultures across the globe, two of the key things they have in common is an active lifestyle and nutrient-rich diet, largely free from processed foods. They don’t rely on one of these things without the other. (7)

The bottom line? While some of us might have a history of prioritizing one over the other, when it comes to diet vs. exercise, there’s actually no competition: They’re both important partners in a healthy routine.*

References:

  1. Reedy J, Lerman JL, Krebs-Smith SM, et al. Evaluation of the Healthy Eating Index-2015. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2018;118(9):1622‐1633.
  2. Ritual - Men’s Health Survey. November 2019. n=300.
  3. Ross D. Pollock, Katie A. O'Brien, Lorna J. Daniels, Kathrine B. Nielsen, Anthea Rowlerson, Niharika A. Duggal, Norman R. Lazarus, Janet M. Lord, Andrew Philp, Stephen D. R. Harridge. Properties of the vastus lateralis muscle...in master cyclists aged 55-79 years. Aging Cell, 2018; e12735 DOI:
  4. ten Brinke, L. F., Bolandzadeh, N., Nagamatsu, L. S., Hsu, C. L., Davis, J. C., Miran-Khan, K., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2015). Aerobic exercise...: a 6-month randomised controlled trial. British journal of sports medicine, 49(4), 248–254.
  5. Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne, 174(6), 801–809.
  6. Atherton, P. J., & Smith, K. (2012). Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise. The Journal of physiology, 590(5), 1049–1057.
  7. Buettner, Dan, and Sam Skemp. “Blue Zones.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, vol. 10, no. 5, July 2016, pp. 318–321., doi:10.1177/1559827616637066.

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Meet our expert

This article features advice from our science team.

Science Thumb — Nima

Dr. Nima Alamdari, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer

Dr. Nima Alamdari is Chief Scientific Officer at Ritual. He was previously faculty at Harvard University where he researched muscle metabolism in health and disease. He received a PhD in Muscle Physiology and a First Degree in Biochemistry from The University of Nottingham in the UK. He has authored many original articles in top international peer-reviewed journals and presented at world-leading international conferences.

Science Thumb — Nima

Dr. Nima Alamdari, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer

Dr. Nima Alamdari is Chief Scientific Officer at Ritual. He was previously faculty at Harvard University where he researched muscle metabolism in health and disease. He received a PhD in Muscle Physiology and a First Degree in Biochemistry from The University of Nottingham in the UK. He has authored many original articles in top international peer-reviewed journals and presented at world-leading international conferences.