Can You Outrun a Bad Diet? | Healthy Aging Series: S8, E3

Reading time: 4 minutes.

Can You Outrun a Bad Diet?

Endurance athletes have one thing in common. Regardless of age, they run to eat! I can remember finishing a long training run for the Air Force Marathon, and remember finishing my summit to the top of Mount Whitney. I remember backpacking out of the Grand Canyon. Afterwards, I gorged on whatever I wanted. I couldn’t get enough to eat, and I didn’t worry about one single calorie!

Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but I believe that most endurance athletes believe they can outrun a bad diet.

How does research answer the question: Can you outrun a bad diet? There are two answers to this question depending on how you defined the bad diet. If by bad diet you mean, a hypercaloric diet or over consumption of calories, then yes, it’s possible to outrun a bad diet There is some truth to the calorie in/calorie out strategy that many of us have been taught through the years. You can manage your weight by consistently exceeding your caloric intake with exercise (cardio and resistance training). In other words, if you take in 1800 calories of food daily and you expend 2300 calories through daily activities, you will lose 1 pound per week. (3500 calories equals 1 pound of fat). It’s science!

So, YES you can outrun a bad diet if by bad diet you mean over consumption of calories.

But…can you out run a bad diet if a bad diet means consistently eating junk food, fast food, simple carbohydrates like sugar, trans fats, and not enough fruits and vegetables? Can you out run that kind of a bad diet?

That’s not exactly the question that British researchers asked when they recently studied the diets and behaviors of nearly 350,000 people over a period of 11 years. They were asking the question:

Between diet and exercise, which of these played the most important role in decreasing the risk of mortality?

Was it quality diet or sufficient exercise? Don’t you want to know? What is more likely to help you live longer: diet or exercise? In a recent blog I looked at a study that asked something different. It asked what are the behavioral predictors for successful aging? They defined successful aging as free from disease, high cognitive and physical functioning, and a social support system. It did not look at longevity. Although you could infer from the definition of successful aging that a person is more likely to live longer. Let me set up this British study. Researchers access the UK bio bank. That’s a database of over 500,000 participants between the age of 40 and 69 gathered from 2007 to 2010. 350,000 of these participants completed the study the study looked at diet and here’s what they scored high:

  1. You scored high if you consumed 4 1/2 cups of vegetables and fruits on a daily basis. They also measured whether you had two or more servings of fish per week and two or fewer servings of processed meat, and five or less servings of meat as your protein. They rated diets from 0 to 3 based on the previous criteria with three being a high quality diet.
  2. They assessed the activity level and exercise level of participants. There were four levels of exercise: “0” was four no moderate or vigorous exercise during the week. “1” was scored if you exercised from 10 to 74 minutes each week of moderate to vigorous exercise. You received a “2” as a score if you exercise at a vigorous to moderate level for 70 forward to 149 minutes. And you scored a “3’” if you exercise 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous exercise. They followed all participants for 11 years and in 2020 they looked at the death certificates of all participants that it died and looked at their scores for diet and exercise and here’s what they found: people that ate a high quality diet and exercised at a high-level lived longer


When they looked at good diet and exercise separately those individuals who only exercised did better than those who did not exercise. So, if you only exercise, you will live longer than those individuals who do not exercise at all. Or exercise wins out over nutrition. But….


If you only have a good diet then you will do better than those individuals who have a poor diet. But, what this study indicated was, that individuals who had a good diet and exercise moderately or vigorously for 150 minutes a week, those individuals did better than those who only had a good diet and those who only had a good exercise regimen. It seems kind of silly that we have to look at 350,000 individuals and look at their diet and the amount of exercise that they do each week in order to determine whether or not it’s more likely that you’re going to live longer if you do both.

Take Aways

One “take away” from this study is that there are some things that I can do if I want to live longer. I’ve mentioned in one of my earlier blogs that both of my parents outlived all of their parents. And that is despite the fact that my father was a smoker. Both of my parents were relatively in good health and ate well. They weren’t big exercisers, though.

And so there’s no question that diet and exercise has the ability to trump genetics. It’s difficult to protect yourself from environmental factors such as accidents or exposure to toxic factors. I guess there are people out there that are pretty resigned to the fact that they are not going to outlive their genetics.

This study does indicate that within reason your behavior is going to determine to some extent how long you live.

You cannot eat whatever you want and avoid moderate to vigorous exercise and expect that you are going to live past your parents. I’m going to be sharing in a future blog a strategy known as back-casting. It’s a process of looking forward to what are call your “Marginal Years” or the last decade of your life, and then looking to your present life that is leading up to your marginal decade and determining what kind of things you need to do in order to have a very successful marginal decade. Clearly diet and exercise will play a role in that back-casting your marginal decade.

Can you out run a bad diet? If you mean, can you outrun eating or consuming high caloric meals? Then the answer is, probably yes. But if it means having a diet that includes sugars and avoids fruits and vegetables, then the answer is probably no. You need both exercise and high quality diet to counteract environment and genetics! Sorry for the bad news!

To see more entries in the Healthy Aging series, click here.