Updated: Feb 21, 2019
It can be tempting, as a gym member, to believe that it is possible to work off the effects of what we eat once we get through the gym doors.
Or, to put it another way, that we can indulge where food is concerned and then work hard once in the gym under the misconception that in doing so we can burn off that indulgence (along with any lingering guilt we may feel for consuming what was perhaps not that healthy for us in the first place).
It is a very human trait and (let’s be honest about this) we can all be affected by it at some time or other in our lives.
According to the research, however, the relationship between diet and exercise is not so conveniently balanced. In fact, recent research suggests that the effort to eradicate the impact of an unhealthy diet can be summarised in broad brush terms as follows:
40 minutes of intense weight lifting = 2 beers.
20 minutes of brisk walking = 1 glass of champagne.
45 minutes of brisk walking = 1 doughnut (!).
Three hours of walking = A Big Mac with fries (OK, I sort of get that).
Three hours of yoga = A small pizza.
Pretty sobering, right?
Though what this equation really shows is not so much the weakness at the heart of the supposed strategy of relying on exercise to compensate for our dietary excesses, but rather what may be missing from such an indulgent diet in the first place in the form of minerals, nutrients etc. - all of which are needed to power the human machine.
And then there is the problem that comes with overly depending on exercise to strengthen the body and cleanse the soul. Increased exercise, driven by complex psychological motivations and coupled with a rigorous and punishing diet can result in physical depletion, if not exhaustion.
A case of too much going out and not enough going in.
One thing I always try to emphasise with clients is to understand that a regular challenging workout is both demanding and a source of stress to the body and mind. With the right sustenance and rest such a programme can build strength, raise energy levels and add endurance.
Alternatively, without these compensators this kind of workout can grind a person down and possibly damage the physique in the process.
So the first thing to understand about our relationship with food is that it is not a tug of war between desire and control. Rather, it is a negotiation between what is in actuality a source of nourishment and pleasure (and as anyone who has followed my social media posts will know, I am all about the pleasure of food!) and a companion piece to effective exercise.
Which is not to say that we should be discouraged from making sensible decisions concerning what we eat and how we exercise to get the best physical outcomes.
Quite the reverse.
The generally accepted balance between food and exercise that people are advised to follow, for example, is to go with 80% of the former and 20% of the latter. Or, to put it another way, maintaining the right weight for our height and lifestyle should come mainly from what we eat (and through how much we consume).
And how best to position diet and exercise so that balance is sustainable, natural and beneficial?
Well, my advice would be to focus on what you are eating and to understand that sensible dietary decisions should be made in an ongoing fashion and almost at a micro level.
To achieve this, start with a healthy breakfast, as breakfast remains the most important meal of the day and when everyone should eat healthy, balanced and substantial food to give the next 12 hours a strong foundation.
Then, through the day that follows pack in vegetables and (to a lesser extent) fruit with each meal, and scale down the proteins and carbohydrates as the day progresses.
Oh, and keep the water intake level up (especially when training).
Next - and this is where I start to get ‘whole person’ and less gym technical - focus on yourself as a rounded person that is on a life journey, and not as a simple biological machine.
What I mean by this is aim to support, encourage and understand yourself, and to recognise when you feel good strong, both physically and mentally. After all, living a healthy lifestyle is not about how cool (or indeed, attractive) you look in the mirror. Rather it is about how energetic, balanced and contented you feel on the inside.
Get that right and the external will take care of itself.
Finally, be sure to invest in developing a mindset that looks for medium and long-term gains over quick wins, and which interprets food and exercise in this context. Because it is only by respecting and welcoming what is good (i.e. healthy and enjoyable) that we can move a step closer to achieving balance and progress on our journey to a more positive and sustainable lifestyle.
As well as a contented life.