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Exercise Hard, Eat Right, Live Longer?
A new study looks at the benefits of fitness and nutrition for longevity.
The Upshot, Upfront:
An epidemiological study shows serious exercise to be associated with living longer.
Add healthy nutrition into the mix and the odds get even better.
There have been many great debates over the course of history. In 792 A.D., Buddhist monks from India and China gathered at Tibet’s Samye Monastery to debate whether a person seeking spiritual enlightenment achieved it in a gradual or sudden manner. The Council of Lhasa, as it was called, lasted two years until the debate’s moderator, King of Tibet Khri-srong-lde-btsan—who sat through the entire exchange—ruled in favor of the Indian contingent’s postulation that enlightenment came gradually. Personally, I’m not certain he was completely convinced; it may have been more a case of, “Sheesh, fellas. Enough is enough. Let’s flip a coin.”
In 1975 A.D, Pepsi launched a marketing promotion called “The Pepsi Challenge,” wherein members of the public blindly sampled Pepsi Cola and Coca-Cola to choose their favorite. This particular debate has raged on for 47 years, probably because the United States does not have a Buddhist monarch to put us in our place. If the pollsters switched their line of questioning to, “Which cola gives you heart disease quicker?” I bet the debate would already be over.
Today, there’s a third debate of equally grave frivolity raging in the wellness world: “Which is more important for your health, exercise or nutrition?” A new study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine might put an end to this one faster than you can say, “Khri-srong-lde-btsan.” The answer? When it comes to longevity, both are important—and combining them offers the best results.
Cogent facts about the study.
The epidemiological study looked at 346,627 Brits, comparing associations between self-reported activity level (moderate to vigorous exerciser, moderate exerciser, inactive) and diet (quality scored on a scale from zero to three). After 11 years, researchers tallied who had died. If you’re keeping score, the number was 13 ,869. This last part, obviously, was not self-reported.
According to the study, “The lowest risk combinations consistently included the higher levels of physical activity and the highest diet quality score.” That is to say, people who seriously exercised lived longer, although not as long as people who seriously exercised and ate a healthy diet—who reduced their risk of dying from heart issues or cancer by 17 percent.
Since you asked, they rated diet quality based on standard stuff like fruit and veggie intake (yay!) as well as processed meat intake (boo!).
Snarky opinions about the study.
You may have seen the study in the news. Many outlets erroneously glommed on to that old chestnut, “You can’t out-exercise a bad diet,” which is weird because I don’t think the study said that. “Physical activity always helps, regardless of dietary quality,” study lead Dr. Melody Ding told the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH). “It is just that diet still matters if someone is very active.”
I’m not sure what part of “Physical activity always helps” confused the SMH editor who wrote the article’s headline: “You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet, study shows.”
Keep in mind that this was epidemiological research. That means it didn’t determine a cause and effect. It didn’t directly prove that exercise and eating well make you live longer. Instead, it showed that people who exercise and eat well just happen to live longer. Other factors could be at play. For example, some people might have become ill early in the study and been unable to work out—so the illness caused the lack of exercise instead of the opposite.
But I’m being pedantic. I think it’s safe to say that folks who take both diet and exercise at least semi-seriously are doing it right. In other words, if you eat right and kick ass (see: NPB logo), you’ll probably buy yourself more time to keep doing what you love.
Hmmm… someone should start a newsletter about that….
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