Being healthy is simple, right? “Eat less, move more.” That’s easy to say, but practicality is one of the most important things when it comes to health and
fitness. Recommendations like this are blanket statements that don’t address practicality
so when it comes down to it, which is more important? Diet, or exercise?
Yes, we should all eat healthier. Yes, we should exercise every day. There are
infinite things we could do in order to be healthier, like sit less, eat more
vegetables, eat less processed food, or drink less alcohol. But they don’t take
into account the reality of life: we are all constrained by a finite amount of resources
such as time, energy, willpower, and money. Recommendations that don’t take this into account can easily make us feel like we are failing our health and fitness goals.
A Primer on Calories
Let’s say that a 200 pound man wants to lose one pound in a week. Through exercise alone, he needs to run about 3.5 miles per day (or 24.5 miles total), assuming his diet stays the same. Through dieting alone, he needs to cut back
500 calories/day (the equivalent of two Starbucks Frappuccinos), given his
exercise regime stays the same. Theoretically, the two should achieve the
But in the world of fitness theory and reality are not the same thing, because
theory does not account for adherence. We don’t live in a magical house that contains a gym, a Whole Foods, and a personal staff of nutritionists and trainers. Instead, we’re left about our own devices in everyday life. What happens then?
How to Effectively Incorporate Diet and Exercise
Most people I see struggle far more with their kitchens than with their gyms.
They’ll readily find 30 minutes or more a day to hit the gym, go for walks, or
simply up their daily activity by parking further away and taking the stairs more
often, than they will for packing a lunch, prepping ingredients, cooking dinner, or keeping a food diary. I think in part it’s because that’s what the world believes — fuelled no doubt by shows like The Biggest Loser, and by the huge amount of
money the food industry is throwing at the message of ‘balancing’ energy-in with energy-out, but also because we don’t get endorphin rushes from chopping vegetables or washing tupperware.
Most folks want to lose weight and to improve health and so both gyms and
kitchens are required. That said, if weight’s a primary concern, I’d never ditch the kitchen in order to find the time to exercise. Instead take the total amount of time
you think you’re willing to spend in the gym, and formally dedicate at least a third
of that to the kitchen. As far as optimal amounts go, a person needs to like the life they’re living if they’re going to sustain it, so what’s right and optimal for one person will be too little or too much for another. The simplest litmus test question to ask is, “could I live like this forever,” and if the answer is “no,” you’ll need to change something up.