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Exercise vs Nutrition

America is the land of the free and the highest percentage of clinical obesity in the world. We also feature a boutique athletic club or gym on just about every other block in every major city.

The dichotomy begs the question of how effective exercise really is when it comes to health and losing weight compared to how much—and what—you eat?

I was pondering this question lately while walking down the street in Paris during a quick family holiday. Over the previous three days It felt like I had eaten enough delicious Parisian cuisine to stuff about three hippos. We had also walked well over twenty thousand steps a day.

In terms of weight gain or loss, would the eating overpower the walking, or the opposite? The answer in a minute.

First, a story.

I’m about 6’2” and have generally kept a pretty steady weight at around 183 pounds, give or take a few, for the last thirty years. That is, until Covid lockdown.

Covid quarantine kicked into gear and suddenly my wife and I began cooking every meal rather than eating out several times a week, and we walked the dog an average of two to three hours a day. The biggest shift in our lifestyle wasn’t the walking or the cooking though, it was how much we ate.

Instead of an egg and cheese bagel from the bagel shop every day I drank an almond milk, blueberry, banana, and peanut butter smoothie. Then for lunch, instead of a moderately-sized burrito from Chipotle, I had a simple sandwich or a light salad. Dinner was always a tasty salad or some salmon and veggies, or something else delicious one of us had conjured up with what we found in the pantry or refrigerator. We never had an appetizer though, and very rarely did we eat dessert.

Consequentially, within a few months I had dropped over ten pounds without even noticing until I tried on some pants I hadn’t worn in a while (because sweats or jammies were pretty much the stay-at-home standard). They almost fell off my waist. When I stepped on the scale it said 171 pounds. I don’t remember weighing that even in high school and certainly not as a college or professional athlete.

It’s true I had been walking more since we acquired a puppy during lockdown, but I hadn’t been doing my normal exercise of tennis, running, swimming and gym workouts much if at all. As a result, the Covid experience of moderate-eating and lack of hard exercise combination convinced me of two things: Portions matter more than anything, and walking can be a more than sufficient form of exercise for health.

There is plenty of science to back me up on this including numerous new studies on the value of taking 10-12,000 steps a day, and other studies on how calorie restriction can potentially increase lifespan. There’s also the age-old adage that if you want to shed some pounds, calories going in must be less than calories going out.

I also have human history on my side. Back in the early days of humans, the science doesn’t paint a picture of our ancestors engorging themselves on food or doing pushups, sit-ups or high intensity workouts for the sake of staying fit. It does show that our ancestors walked five to ten miles per day to hunt or gather with minimal high intensity bursts as required to catch a fox or carry heavy objects across a distance. As far as we know, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes didn’t exist. Considering exercise was a necessity rather than a vehicle for weight loss or fitness, I’m convinced that if they were able to jump forward in time and check out even a common spin class they’d be scratching their heads wondering, “Why?”

Yet, despite the science and our ancestral heritage for evidence, nothing hits home like actual experience, and the Covid experience has changed my eating habits pretty much for good. I still eat the things I like, I just generally eat less of them. It’s not a diet in the sense that I’m not purposely calorie restricting. I am listening to my body though, and I have a new sense of what feels right for me and my body as well as my health. The additional upside is I recently visited the doc for a general checkup now that I’ve reached the big 5-0 and it turns out even my blood pressure has dropped significantly (in a good way).

So, here are my answers to some of the common questions around eating and exercising:

What’s more important to health: exercise or eating well?

The science says that both are important, but I think, overall, what you eat is less important than how much you eat (within reason). In my experience, portion control beats tons of exercise when it comes to losing weight and also when it comes to feeling energetic and healthy.

How much exercise is the right amount per day?

I’m convinced 10,000 steps or more a day actually is a viable, effective form of exercise for most people. I’ve also found that some kind of pedometer that measures your step count (usually just an app on your phone) adds motivation and accountability.

For me, I consider any exercise like tennis, running or anything else, as bonus exercise rather than it counting towards steps. Of course, all those activities certainly do count, but I personally prefer to maintain the 10,000 step measure as a separate goal.

How much food per day and what kind of food is best?

What kind of food is best is an easy answer. Organic fruits and veggies, lean meats and fish and anything that is real food rather than the processed crud that’s abundantly available. However, I really do believe quantity matters much more than quality. If you don’t change a thing about what you eat but eat less of it, I’m convinced your energy, vitality, overall well-being and health will improve.

I also think eating just enough and stopping before you feel full is crucial. I’m not advocating fasting or becoming obsessive about your eating in any way, but I am saying you’d be very surprised at how good you feel when eating less.

My general rule is now to eat when I’m hungry. Period. Although, I definitely broke that rule in Paris because, well, it was Paris.

The whole, eat three-times-a-day at 8am, noon and 6pm thing, like you have an alarm set, or getting stuck in the ‘must eat breakfast, lunch and dinner’ routine are both societal norms that have nothing to do with your own metabolism.

In fact, I’m a big advocate of listening to your body and what it’s telling you rather than us dictating the when and how much of eating. If you feel like eating at those times then eat. If you still feel full from the meal before, or you’re just not that hungry then eat less or skip it.

So, what won out in Paris, the walking 20,000 steps a day or the eating like a ravenous T-Rex?

The ravenous T-Rex in me came home with two extra pounds. I consider it more evidence that how much you eat can overpower how much you move, at least for my body. It turns out my wife, who ate the same food and walked the same steps, lost three pounds. She’s amazing like that.

I’ll say this though, even if I had come home ten pounds heavier, I wouldn’t change a thing. Sometimes, part of the joy of life is indulging in deliciousness. Yum 🙂