I get this question a lot and people want to know what percentage of value to place on it. The old standard answer is 80% diet and 20% exercise, but that’s not entirely true.
Let me clarify. That 80/20 rule has some merit and it doesn’t exist for any particular reason. If you eat five to six times a day for a month that works out to around 180 meals. If you exercise with weights three times a week and do cardio for six sessions, that works out to nine sessions a week, or 36 workouts per month, which is exactly 20%. So it is important to eat well in order to get results but there is so much more to it than that arbitrary formula.
The thing is, eating well is 100% important. You cannot out-train a lousy diet, no matter how hard you try and I have tried. While training for Ultraman in 2010 and 2011 I needed to eat a lot to keep up with my 20 to 25 hour a week training schedule. I figured I had a little license to eat with a wider range in order to get in the calories I needed and I got chubby. Yes, even with pouring out 15,000 calories a week to exercise, I added unhealthy weight by eating ice cream, sugary drinks and fatty food. My training was solid but sometimes my recovery suffered. I did eat well the month before and during the race but I arrived at the race 10 pounds heavier and I know I could have done better, and this year I am.
We need to eat well to be healthy; it is not an option. Food is fuel. If you fill your face with garbage it is no different than filling your regular car with diesel or your big diesel truck with regular gas. You will wreck the engine. Eating well sets up the right ingredients for muscles to be optimal, joints to function well, energy levels to be high, sleep to be restful, ligaments and bones to stay strong and so, so much more. Add to that the important role that good nutrition plays on hormones, the immune system and becomes so clear that food must be your medicine. Without it your workouts cannot create anything because your body doesn’t have the raw materials to manufacture muscle, bone, blood, etc.
Having said that I need to tell you that training well is 100% important. If you eat perfectly but you sit on your duff all day, do nothing and never use or challenge your muscles, you will never be healthy.
You can get very fat, eating perfectly.
How you exercise is important as well. If you always do the same routine your body has no need to adapt. There are folks who start walking and lose weight at first, gain some muscle, burn some calories and start to feel better. Then it stops working because their body has adapted to walking for 20 minutes each day on a particular route. So now it is time to add stairs, walk longer, add hills, wear a good backpack full of books for weight, walk faster, jog, run, etc. Teach your body that it needs to be strong, that muscles are important, and that food is fuel to be burned, not stored.
We need to understand that food and exercise either help us get where we want to be, or they take us further away. Yes, I do believe that once in a while, you should have a cheat meal and do as you please. Indulge. Play. I believe that a day off from exercise is critical for injury prevention. I believe that rest is as important as effort and that moderation and balance are critical.
Food is a tool that will build your body or break it down. Exercise is a tool that will build your body and non-exercise will let it break down. Both are 100% important in their own right, so the rule is 100%/100%.
Scott McDermott is a personal trainer and owner of Best Body Fitness in Sylvan Lake.