According to a new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, putting all your eggs in the exercise basket or the nutrition basket cannot protect you from chronic diseases. An effective longevity routine should include a balance of the two.
An international team of researchers has obtained data from 350,000 people from the UK Biobank, a massive database of UK citizen health information that healthcare professionals rely on for this kind of in-depth analysis . They started the study ten years ago, when the median age was 57, and the participants were all free of “cardiovascular disease, cancer or chronic pain”.
The researchers established rubrics for diet quality and activity level. For example, as The New York Times pointed out, the best diets included “more than four cups of fruits and vegetables per day, two or more servings of fish per week, less than two servings of processed meats per week, and no more than five servings of red meat per week.” Meanwhile, top athletes regularly walked, cycled and engaged in “vigorous exercise” for more than 10 minutes at a time. Sweating for just 10 to 75 minutes per week was associated with “a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease”. It’s a short session a day.
By far, the lowest mortality risk was in the center of the Venn diagram: those who stocked up on high-quality diets alongside constant movement were more likely to live longer, healthier lives. Their data was particularly strong in the area of cardiovascular health, which is no small feat. Around the world, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is easily the leading cause of death.
All of this may seem really obvious. We all know that working out and eating well is a great idea. Why do we need expensive international studies to remind us of something we learned in elementary school health classes?
In practice, however, it is difficult to observe the two equally. There’s a fair share of people who eat nutritious food but don’t observe a consistent fitness regimen (which impairs heart health, limits endurance, and has an array of unwanted side effects, like poor bone density). On the other hand, many amateur and professional athletes take their focus as a license to eat whatever they want.
Marathon trainees go crazy on Seamless after a long run, weightlifters pledge to “bulk dirty” as they try to increase their bench press. This reductionist thinking assumes that health is simply a game of calories going in and out – and goes further by imagining that if you’ve worked really hard on the roads or at the gym, you’ve “earned” a piece of cake.
From a mental health perspective, yes, self-care is important. But from a longevity perspective, it’s important to remember that the body still processes unhealthy food choices. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to top or exceed a regular list of meals high in sugar, salt, and fat. It can come as a shock – to the patient and all their friends – when a top athlete develops a chronic disease. But if this athlete didn’t favor an unprocessed, whole-food, and largely plant-based diet, CVD is very much in play.
The good news? You don’t have to listen to fitness influencers on Instagram. Your workouts don’t have to be so hard and your body doesn’t have to look a certain way. Instead of training like a triathlete, focus on simple adjustments to your daily routine that the body absolutely considers exercise. Walk everywhere; take the stairs if possible; make sure you really sweat a few days a week. If you combine a life of movement with clean eating, your life is going to last for a while.
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