When we talk about ways to optimize body composition and improve health, two pillars of health get most of the attention.
Diet and exercise.
Why are these the ones that get the most attention?
They are the things that 1) people can make money from 2) they are the ones that look the best on social media. It’s hard to make money or get clicks from better sleep, better stress management, and better community, although that doesn’t stop people from trying!
But diet and exercise are mainstream. They are pervasive in Western culture, no matter who you are, when you think of ways to improve your health you probably immediately think diet and exercise.
Whenever you have two standout components like diet and exercise inevitably people begin to wonder which one is superior?
The one thing I will say at the beginning of this post is that neither is superior to the other, both need to be part of everyone’s health journey no matter what your goal is. In fact they complement each other. If your diet is better (for you) your exercise will improve. If your exercise is optimized (for you) your diet will improve.
That said, we can think about both of these as tools that you can use to easily accomplish your goal. If your goal is to screw a screw into a piece of wood, you could use a hammer, but a better tool for the job would be a screwdriver. In a similar vein if you need to drive a nail into a piece of wood a screwdriver will be pretty much useless, a hammer is a much better option.
Using this comparison, depending on your goal, either diet or exercise may be able to get you there but one may be more efficient at doing so than the other. In a similar vein there may be some goals where only diet or only exercise may be able to help with.
If someone came to me and said they are eating the standard American diet, had no major health concerns, but have been told if they don’t do something soon about their lifestyle then they will in the future. They work full time, maybe have a couple kids, and right now they only have the mental capacity to focus on diet or exercise then I would tell them to choose exercise.
Why exercise over diet?
Exercise has one major benefit to it that makes it too compelling to pass up.
It has the capability to add muscle mass!
Notice I said capability, it is not a guarantee.
However for novice individuals, people who have little exercise background, or have not exercised with consistency in years, even the crappiest exercise programming along with the crappiest diet will still add muscle to your body…at least in the short term.
Now you might be saying to yourself…
“Hold up Ryan, I know for a fact protein plays an important role in adding muscle mass, don’t they at least need to be eating enough protein to have any hope of building muscle?”
You are right, adequate protein intake is important in maintaining and building muscle mass!
It is also the case that optimal is not always necessary. It is likely, especially in someone who has never exercised or has not exercised with consistency in a long time that even without adequate protein they can still gain muscle.
In a study done on untrained postemenopausal women even the women who were consuming less than 0.9 g/kg of protein per day gained lean mass and lost fat! For reference, the optimal protein intake to maintain and build muscle is 1.6 g/kg to 2.2 g/kg of body weight per day.
Now obviously as you can see from the graphs above the women on the low protein diet did not do as well as the moderate and high protein groups, but it’s STILL PROGRESS.
In addition exercise has been shown to show improvements in the other health pillars we often put focus on. Exercise can improve sleep and stress. It also offers the opportunity to form a strong community when done with other people. In addition when exercising outside you get all the benefits of being out in nature, which have been shown to further lower stress, improve sleep, and improve vitamin D status (something that is very hard to do with diet).
Then there are all the benefits of exercise on what is happening inside out bodies.
This figure shows the effects of aerobic and strength training can have on our physiology. It improves body composition, your lipid profile, metabolic health, inflammation status, metabolism, bone health, and increases your chances of being able to live independently as you age.
Diet just can do all of that. It certainly can do some of it, don’t get me wrong. Plenty of people have improved their metabolic health, blood lipids, and blood pressure with an improved diet.
But diet won’t improve your bone health (although it plays an important role), improve your metabolism, or help you live independently into old age.
You may say “well, diet can surely improve my body composition though!”
Yes diet is key in losing body fat, that is 100% true.
But without exercise you will also lose muscle mass!!!
While the weight on the scale may go down by manipulating your diet, your body composition may never change, and in the worst case scenario, you may end up with a worse body composition than when you started!!!
I also think that exercise can be the gateway to a better diet. Performance can be a good motivator for improving lifestyle, EVEN IF PERFORMANCE IS NOT YOUR GOAL! It is natural for someone to want to improve how long or how fast they can run, or how much weight they can lift, or how long they can bike, or how fast they can row 500m, etc.
One way to do that, one way to get more out of the training you are already doing is to improve your diet.
Now you get the diet and exercise improvements!
Exercise isn’t always superior to diet, there are certainly scenarios where diet is a better tool for the job than exercise. If you are trying to manage a medical condition with diet, yes, by all means focus on diet first! Or if you have a food intolerance that is causing trouble for you, getting to the bottom of that is very important, choose diet!
Ultimately the answer to the question as to which one is superior, diet or exercise, is neither. You need to dial in both. Your best self can’t be achieved with just one. If I had to start with one and solely focus on that, I would choose exercise as it gets us so many benefits that diet alone can’t. I also believe that as health improves via exercise, diet will naturally become an area of focus as a way to compliment the progress made by exercise.
What do you think, if you could only choose either diet or exercise, which one would you choose? Let me know below!
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