Regular Exercise and a Healthy Diet Promote Longevity, Study Shows

  • A new study finds that in order to live longer, people need to eat healthily and exercise regularly.
  • While a balanced diet and regular exercise independently have plenty of health benefits, the study notes the greatest reduction in mortality risk comes from combining diet and exercise together.
  • The findings indicate that even high levels of exercise can’t totally offset the harms of a poor diet.

A healthy diet can’t counter the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, the same as regular exercise can’t offset poor eating habits.

A July 2022 study shows that exercise and a healthy diet can individually reduce your overall risk of mortality, but the largest risk reduction comes from doing both.

The results, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, show that those who frequently exercise and eat well had the lowest risk of mortality. The study authors also note that high levels of physical activity do not counteract the negative health effects of a poor diet.

According to the researchers, the findings highlight the importance of both a healthy diet and regular physical activity. “Adhering to both quality diet and sufficient physical activity is important for optimally reducing the risk of mortality from all causes, [cardiovascular disease] CVD, and [adiposity-related] PDAR cancers,” the researchers wrote.

For the study, the researchers evaluated the health and exercise data of 346, 627 individuals over the course of 11 years.

They tracked how much exercise each participant completed in an average week along with how intense their physical activity was. The team also followed the participants’ eating habits.

During the study window, 13,869 participants died — 2,650 from heart disease and 4,522 from adiposity-related cancers.

The research team found that any type of regular exercise was associated with a lower risk of mortality, and those who both ate well and exercised had the lowest risk of dying.

In addition, while exercise and diet are independently linked to a lower risk of mortality, high levels of exercise cannot entirely mitigate the harms of a poor diet.

“In our study, those who ate a poor-quality diet and were active still had substantially reduced mortality risk than those who ate a poor-quality diet and were inactive,” Melody Ding, MPH, PhD, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of health and medicine in the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, told Healthline. “It’s just that you had the maximum risk reduction when doing both things right.”

The findings suggest that in order to minimize overall mortality risk, people need to eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

The study concluded that although adherence to both diet and exercise is endorsed by health professionals around the world, sensationalized headlines and advertisements for certain exercise regimens “lure consumers into the idea of working out to eat whatever they want” and have therefore fueled a myth about “exercise outrunning a bad diet.”

It’s well known that diet and exercise can each help prevent a range of chronic diseases.

Being physically active can boost your brain health, reduce your risk of disease and strengthen your bones and muscles, and a healthy diet can increase your longevity, boost immunity, and lower your risk of chronic disease.

“Diet and exercise are each critical to minimize the chance of death from cardiovascular disease and many cancers,” said Dr. Eric Winer, director of Yale Cancer Center, physician-in-chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital, and president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). “Both exercise and pursuing a healthful diet are of benefit in terms of other medical problems.”

Yet because diet and exercise are closely interlinked, many people may believe they can offset the effects of a poor diet by increasing the amount they exercise.

“The underlying scientific explanations are not fully defined, but the bottom line is that if people want to minimize their chance of dying from cardiovascular disease and many types of cancer, they need to watch their diet and obtain exercise,” Winer said.

Ding noted that she was curious how physical activity mitigates the risks linked to a poor diet. After looking into the literature, she said she found that previous research suggested that intense exercise can offset the harms of eating poorly in the short term, but there was minimal data on the long-term effects.

“I wanted to know how diet and physical activity interact on long-term health outcomes,” Ding explained.

According to Winer, Ding’s study shows how important it is to do at least one thing right — either exercise regularly or eat well — to lower the risk of mortality. But diet and exercise, together, are most helpful when it comes to lowering the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and many forms of cancer.

According to new research, a healthy diet and regular exercise may each help to reduce your overall risk of mortality, but the largest risk reduction comes from doing both.

The study shows that people who frequently exercise and eat well had the lowest risk of mortality and that even high levels of physical activity do not offset the negative health effects of a poor diet.

Remember that when it comes to making healthy lifestyle changes, it’s helpful to try not to tackle too much all at once. Winer recommends that people start by setting modest goals — and when you reach that goal, you can set a new goal.

“We need to remember any reduction is good for public health,” Ding added.