You can’t outrun a bad diet. That’s the gist of a controversial letter written by three respected physicians, published recently in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. In it, the doctors (a cardiologist, a nutritional biochemist, and an exercise scientist) acknowledge the many significant benefits of exercise, including protection from heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and certain cancers. But, they stress, physical activity does not promote weight loss—only diet can. And they express outrage at the food industry and the media for what they describe as the pervasive and unhelpful message that one’s weight can be maintained by calorie counting and that obesity is entirely due to a lack of exercise.
Obviously, not everyone in the scientific community agrees with the trio, but their message—that nutrition is more important than exercise when it comes to weight loss—was picked up by media outlets all over the world. “You can’t outrun a bad diet” became watercooler conversation from San Francisco to Savannah, perhaps even among your clients. Which raises the question: What should your message be?
“My take: Research has shown that nutrition has a higher impact on health than exercise, but they’re each incredibly important,” says Emily Bailey, RD, CSSD, LD, NASM-CPT, director of nutrition coaching, sports nutrition, eating disorders, and weight management at NutriFormance and Athletic Republic in St. Louis. “They each offer pieces that the other cannot.”
There are 35 trainers and four nutritionists on staff at NutriFormance, which reflects Bailey’s opinion that exercise is the easier piece for clients to tackle—making it an entry point for the masses. “You can decide to go on a 30-minute walk, and after 30 minutes, you’re done,” she says. “But if you decide you want to eat healthier, it’s far more time consuming, and there is no end to it. Plus, it’s just easier to develop new behaviors when you can see and feel a difference immediately. So most people start with exercise—and that isn’t a bad thing.”
In fact, exercise is the perfect segue to addressing nutrition. “I always recommend trainers ask their clients three questions every session,” she says: “Did you eat before you came in? Are you planning on eating when you leave? And where’s your water bottle? These questions build interest in talking about diet in conjunction with exercise, and they provide an opportunity for trainers to refer clients to a nutritionist. They lay the groundwork for my message—that fitness and nutrition go hand in hand.”
Bailey also recommends two great nutrition apps: MyFitnessPal and Lose It! “They’re just tools,” she says, “but they open the door to the nutrition discussion. And that’s always good.”