I used to think that getting metabolically better — losing weight, lowering cholesterol, dropping BP without medication — was 90%+ about your diet. It’s kind of a maverick position to take, since most folks think the opposite, that you can exercise the pounds away even though the science is clear that it’s impossible to outrun the proverbial donut.
Dial in the proper low sugar/carb diet, I argued, and you don’t have to exercise a lick to get results. I’d personally dropped 20 pounds to my college weight and dropped my blood pressure 40 points in 3 weeks by doing just that, and I’d seen several of my own patients with diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity turn their numbers completely around using only a dietary shift.
Now I’m not so sure.
I suspect the split that truly works is more like 60% nutrition/40% exercise, or 50/50.
Maybe even 30/70. In favor of exercise.
The dark side to rice and ramen
Like every human being, I love starchy carbs; I have yet to meet a plate of pasta, a mound of rice, or a potato that I didn’t
like love. But I’ve also noticed that I feel really full after a serving, within 20 minutes. Pretty sure that’s from SIBO: small intestinal bacteria having a party and producing gas that’s ballooning out my upper digestive tract. And feeling bloated makes working out distinctly challenging, whether it’s running, strength work, or even a floor-based mobility routine.
The choice comes down to exercising less to avoid the discomfort, or to keep exercising while cutting back on the bloating carbs. As pointed out in the post about acting promptly on what you know are the right choices, it’s the blotto foods that have to go, not the critical exercising.
Proper nutritional choices have a bigger effect on health than exercise, at least in the ways most of us need it (weight and BP/cholesterol/insulin resistance reduction). But exercise, in addition to directly helping, is very supportive as a testing ground.
Exercising is like being a test pilot
Think of exercise as flight test for the Air Force.
You’ve got to spiff up a fighter jet (your body) and failure is not an option: the plane needs to fly and fly well.
You take the plane up on test flights (exercise sessions), and report back on how it handles. Some maneuvers feel cumbersome with the current design (eating your ‘cuz-I-feel-like-it meals, workouts are unpleasant — negative feedback). Time to go back to the drawing board and make corrections (you eat cleaner) and future test flights are a piece of cake (working out becomes more positive and reinforcing).
If you didn’t ever put yourself to the test, you wouldn’t get the life-changing feedback. Crappy food choices = me move icky. Staying a couch potato, your brain would just get the message Processed food equals dopamine-rush-yummm. Which is why it’s easy to deceive yourself that a side of chili fries isn’t that bad for you. There’s no negative consequence if you don’t look too closely at what you’re doing.
Unless you go for a run 30 minutes later.
Exercising makes you LOOK
Regular exercise gives you feedback that you can’t ignore about something super important to your health: your nutritional choices. Especially if you exercise shortly after eating — I know, it sounds crazy! But if a (usually high carb) meal makes you feel blech and like you really wouldn’t mind skipping your workout, maybe that’s not a good meal choice when you’re NOT working out.
(That philosophy is behind a diet plan of a certain Brazilian jiu-jitsu family, the Gracie Diet, you may have heard of them. When they were making a name for themselves, they could get challenged to a match at any time, so they developed a diet that wouldn’t slow them down if they had to fight on short notice.)
When you’re regularly active, your body is giving you frequent feedback. Like that wince-inducing puff of air in your eye at the optometrist’s office, or the vocalizations of a frowny 2-year-old, how you feel in your gut while exercising is hard to ignore. It’s TELLING YOU what your body doesn’t like to eat before, dang it.
That’s why a durable, consistent exercise habit is so central to succeeding at your nutritional and health goals. It improves your physiology, yes, but more importantly the more regularly you exercise, the more regularly you get prodded away from cringy food choices. Chewing is good, chewing aluminum foil hurts your teeth. The answer is to stop putting foil in your mouth, not to give up chewing.