Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

The case for breaking up healthy eating and physical activity

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Have you ever noticed that healthy eating and physical activity are often lumped together? I’ve worked on Healthy Eating Physical Activity (HEPA) teams and seen Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) strategies and Healthy Eating Active Fun (HEAF) programs. If you haven’t already noticed it, you probably will now that I’ve introduced that thought to your brain. The thing that I’ve been wondering lately is “why”? At what point did someone say, “hey, let’s lump these two health behaviours together”? And what was the reason for that?

On the face of it, if you’re thinking about healthy eating and physical activity purely from a weight management standpoint it seems to make sense. Most people trying to lose weight will incorporate some sort of combination of the two. Although there are people who will argue that one of the two is more important than the other, but generally in our minds they’re linked. But does it really make sense? I don’t actually think that it does.

On the one hand, you’ve got a health behaviour that involves choosing, preparing, and ingesting food. On the other hand, you’ve got a health behaviour that involves moving your body. These are not two sides of the same coin. They are two completely separate coins. Yes, they both have positive effects on our health and they can both contribute to reduced risk of certain chronic diseases and conditions. However, they are completely independent activities. You can absolutely eat a terrible diet and exercise regularly. You can also eat a super healthy diet and be highly sedentary. If you really wanted to lump health behaviours together why not pair healthy eating and alcohol consumption? Those make far more sense together than physical activity and healthy eating do.

I think that putting physical activity and healthy eating together all the time diminishes the importance of both these activities. It implies that neither is important enough to focus on, on its own. Allowing organizations and those in healthcare and related industries to focus their efforts on one over the other or to spread time thinly across the two. I think it may also help to perpetuate the notion that these behaviours are only important for weight management. When you hear about the two together, what first comes to mind? Is it enjoying a healthy life or is it a certain degree of torment undertaken to stave off obesity?

It’s time for physical activity and healthy eating to break-up. This relationship isn’t healthy and it’s affecting everyone around it. We need to recognize that these behaviours don’t necessarily go hand in hand and that they each have things to offer. If we actually start to value healthy eating and physical activity independently for their own strengths we might be able to improve our own individual relationships with both of these behaviours.

Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

8 thoughts on “The case for breaking up healthy eating and physical activity

  1. Great post! I love this way of looking at our whole fitness system from a different point of view. There have been a lot of studies that show people are most successful when they are singularly focused on one thing at a time. The more things they try to change all at once the less successful they are in the long run. Thanks for your great work.

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  2. Speaking as a coach, I somewhat disagree because healthy eating plays a huge role in allowing an athlete to recover quickly and be properly fueled for the next workout. One can do a workout and then eat junk, but they won’t reap the full benefits of the workout without proper nutrition.

    If you’re suggesting that one person shouldn’t play both roles, then I’m in full agreement. I’m happy to run a workout for people, but I’ll only tell them that they _should_ eat, not _what_ to eat; that’s your job. 🙂

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    • My perpective is mainly from public health where physical activity and healthy eating are often lumped in together. Obviously they both play huge roles for athletes and need to be examined together. However, for the most part, always considering them as a package deal undermines the importance of each of them.

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  3. 100% agree. When people (okay, I) automatically combine diet and exercise, it often means they do less exercise in the long run because they’ve made it all about weight or having a “perfect” diet, which is so counterproductive (to both exercise and healthy eating). Always enjoy your blog posts because I consider you a sane voice:) [I also wrote a blog post many moons ago about disconnecting diet and exercise: http://motherfigure.com/disconnecting-diet-exercise-might-make-exercise/ ]

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  4. I totally understand where you are coming from as there are those that can only focus on one challenge or change at a time. Having said that I believe that ideally you combine even more changes together rather than less.
    I see it from the perspective of adopting a healthy lifestyle which encompasses many things and that by doing so you achieve the ultimate results. I have found that shifting my attitude about what lifestyle I have to have in order to live a happy and healthy live requires that I/we combine healthy eating, exercise, alcohol, sleep and relationships into one overall goal.
    The results come much faster which can be very encouraging to say the least.
    Keep in mind that I am not coaching others so I have not experienced some of the challenges that might come with combing all of these things together.

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    • I do think both healthy eating and exercise are important. My point was not that people should be doing only one or the other and I’m sorry that this is the message that is being taken away. My point was that because they are both important, but completely independent, that they shouldn’t be lumped in together by researchers, public health, healthcare provider, etc. They both deserve individual attention.

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