Out-exercising a poor diet remains one of the biggest misconceptions about fitness, but can you actually make it work for you?
When I started exercising in my teen years, I thought I had it really easy. I was a thin, lean guy so I thought all I had to do to get fit was to start lifting, and the rest of my body would take care of itself.
I still carried that leanness well into my 20s, much to my own disappointment, to the point where I figured I didn’t really have much to lose if I just dirty-bulked my way into a better body. It was clear (even if I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time) that I just wasn’t taking in enough calories, so this had to be the way, right?
The question by itself doesn’t address the premise properly, simply because everyone has different fitness and health goals for themselves. That’s why a blanket conclusion will never answer all of these goals sufficiently
But this is where the trap gets you—for a lot of people, it seems that the best way to get the body you want and be healthy is to just work out. Keep working out, keep lifting, keep burning calories, and everything will balance out. It didn’t help that even though they were also pushing the benefits of proper nutrition and warning against less than stellar eating habits, fitness media would always banner impressive-looking workouts and promote this or that exercise or move to get the body you want.
So I, like many others, was misled.
But let’s look closer at the science. Is it possible to out-exercise a “bad” diet? Even if you were doing it the “right” way?
What’s the goal?
The question by itself doesn’t address the premise properly, simply because everyone has different fitness and health goals for themselves. That’s why a blanket conclusion will never answer all of these goals sufficiently—there’s a different answer for each goal.
Gaining muscle mass
If you just want to pack on mass because you’re undersized, you can out-exercise a poor diet. As long as you lift heavy and intensely enough, you will build the muscle you want even if you eat “unhealthy” foods—but if you’re carefree about eating, you will also pack on a lot of fat. There are times this is beneficial, especially if you’re competing in a strength-centric sport such as weightlifting, powerlifting, or strongman. However, if you don’t eat enough protein (say you just like tsitsirya and sweets) you won’t gain as much muscle.
If you want to be the very best at whatever sports you are into, you can’t eat poorly. Junk food will derail you, which is why athletes only choose to eat badly after they’re done competing, whether it’s for the day, the season, or their career
This is extremely hard to do, but if the intent is simply to lose fat, it is also possible. It will take a lot of work. We’ll tackle that further in the next section.
Peak athletic performance
If you want to be the very best, you can’t eat poorly. Junk food will derail you, which is why athletes only choose to eat badly after they’re done competing, whether it’s for the day, the season, or their career.
General health and wellness
No. The answer is simply no, as many people around the world have found out.
Making the nuances work for you
Ultimately, the answer for any one individual is not as easy as it seems. Like many complex scenarios, there are a lot of variables to consider, calculate, and break down.
First, we have to unpack what the term “unhealthy eating” or “bad diet” really means for you. “Unhealthy” foods by themselves do not make a completely unhealthy diet, and you can still eat them within a boundary that’s still generally considered healthy if you balance it out. This is worth noting because it’s important to let loose occasionally because full-on healthy eating may make some miserable.
First, we have to unpack what the term “unhealthy eating” or “bad diet” really means for you. “Unhealthy” foods by themselves do not make a completely unhealthy diet, and you can still eat them within a boundary that’s still generally considered healthy if you balance it out
On the other end of the spectrum, you can overeat “healthy” foods and gain weight and fat because of the high calories. (That’s near impossible for a lot of people, but it is possible.)
For our scenario, let’s assume “bad diet” simply means unrestricted eating without care for how many calories you’re consuming. I just wanted to point out how eating foods that are ordinarily considered unhealthy may not be outright unhealthy.
Second, you also have to mind what kind of exercise you’re actually doing because obviously, fitness levels are not the same across all people.
Some are professional or hardcore athletes who train and perform all the time, burning immense amounts of calories nearly every day. They can out-exercise poor eating choices, should they choose to eat terribly.
Others are weekend/after-work warriors who can’t afford to always be on their feet, which makes good eating a must. Some may be squarely in the middle, getting by on regular or semi-regular workouts and keeping up their NEAT, which makes eating a careful balancing act.
Once you find out the separate answers to those two questions, you’ll have a better idea of whether you can outdo a bad diet. Tread lightly, however, because it’s easy to derail yourself with poor choices—but in the end, the best way to go about it is to do whatever works best for you.