Build Houses of Brick Not Mansions of Straw
The Relationship Between Diet and Exercise
Diet and exercise are two of the most important components of physical health and wellbeing. The physiological mechanisms that allow us to adapt to regular exercise and healthy diets requires cyclical stressors and periods of recovery in order to adapt and improve. These processes are highly complex and interdependent — they each affect the other, often in ways we still don’t fully understand. But the basic idea behind how diet and exercise help improve an individual’s health are conceptually accessible to everyone. It doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. Here is an illustration of the importance and interdependent relationship between exercise and diet on health and wellbeing.
Imagine you are trying to build a house that you will live in the rest of your life. You are building it from scratch, and you are in charge of everything except the blueprint of the house. The blueprint is your genetics, you cannot change the genes you have, and you cannot change the blueprint. (More on changing our genetics in another post, because eventually we will be able to change our blueprint). You are, however, in charge of buying the supplies for your house and hiring the construction crew that will help you build it. Your diet is your building materials and exercise is the construction crew.
You can choose to purchase cheap materials because they are less expensive and easier to get, however the cheap materials are lower quality and will obviously wear out quicker. If you think about it you literally are what you eat, the building blocks and constituents of your cells and tissues come from the foods you eat. Wouldn’t you want to build a house with quality materials? Eating quality foods is a prerequisite for optimal physical health, don’t give it garbage and expect a mansion.
Building a quality house is not just about the materials you use but also how you put it together. Even if you use the best materials, hiring a sub-par construction crew could be disastrous for the quality of your house. That is to say, you could have the best diet in the world (whatever that is…) but if you do not give your body the proper stimulus it won’t know what to do with the materials you give it. This is exercise.
Exercise provides the body with a stimulus that organizes and prioritizes where certain materials go and when. A quality construction crew will make sure the materials are put together in the right manner at the right time. Even if you give the construction crew average materials, they could put together a quality, livable home. It won’t last as long, but it’s certainly better than poor building materials and a bad construction crew. Human bodies that are in the optimal physical health are ones that are given quality building materials and a crew that knows what to do with them. You cannot be in an optimal state of health if you only have one or the other.
We begin building our “adult” houses (bodies) at a young age; therefore, it is important that children receive adequate nutrition and build healthy exercise habits early in life to foster optimal physical health later in life. By the time we are young adults we have built the house, and from that point forward it is about maintenance and small improvements. If we neglect regular maintenance and upkeep, it begins deteriorating quite quickly, even if we have built a sturdy foundation in our youth.
Maintenance and upkeep are still largely dictated by our exercise and dietary habits because not only does exercise provide the stimulus for organizing and constructing the body we want, but it also helps maintain that body by recycling materials and rebuilding damaged parts and making those parts stronger than before. We still need to give it the best materials possible (nutrition) because the materials that are wearing out need to be replaced. This highlights why healthy diet and exercise habits are things we need to actively pursue each day. If we stop at any point throughout our lives, the body begins to deteriorate faster than our building and recycling systems can keep up. This is, unfortunately, why we can’t just do one exercise session a year or eat healthy every so often and still be healthy. Healthy diet and regular exercise have to be habits we commit to every day of our lives.
Overtraining and overeating are also detrimental to our health. Overtraining is like not allowing your construction crew to take any breaks. Eventually someone is going to make a mistake because they are being overworked. Overtraining can cause increased risk for injuries, burnout, mental fatigue, and a whole host of physiological issues. You need to give your body time to relax and recover from the exercise stimulus in order to adapt to the stress of exercise.
Overfeeding is like buying too many supplies for regular upkeep and maintenance. If you buy more supplies than you need every time you need to replace something, you will slowly begin to accumulate stuff you don’t need. Eventually your house will be filled to the brim with excessive amounts of leftover supplies from previous maintenance projects. Picture a hoarder’s house — this is what decades of overeating does to our bodies when we are consistently in a caloric excess (and we don’t exercise). The physiological outcome of consistent overconsumption of food (even if the food is healthy for you) is increased fat cell number and fat cell size, because these are the only storage containers in our bodies that can handle excessive amounts of calories.
A sturdy, long-lasting home requires quality craftsmanship and the highest quality materials. It may not be a mansion with a five-car garage, which is dictated by the genetic blueprint, but each of us can have a quality livable home that will last a long time through building the proper foundation and with the appropriate maintenance, upkeep, and adequate recovery.
This is how diet and exercise act together to create a physically healthy individual. Understanding the relationship between diet and exercise on a deeper level than “eating healthy and regular exercise are good for you” helps us identify things that are actionable and things that are useless. It allows us to identify behaviors we can improve upon, and things we should cut out.
There is no one single method that is superior to all the others for building a quality house, but there are some guiding principles that are consistent across environments and people: Do something active every day, eat real food (avoid highly processed foods), try your best not to overeat, and give yourself adequate recovery time (sleep ~8 hours every night).
The secret to health is there is no secret. It’s not something we can “hack” or take drugs to achieve. Don’t listen to the people trying to sell you supplements. We didn’t evolve and migrate to every corner of the world by eating a handful of vitamins from GNC every four hours. We ate real food and we moved A LOT. It is incredibly simple conceptually, it’s the execution that’s difficult.
Build houses of brick, not mansions of straw.