Exercise Just As Important As Healthy Diet, Study Finds

Don't let that gym membership lapse.

A new study may just help you stick to those New Year’s resolutions after all. Exercise, the study found, is just as important as a healthy diet in reducing the risk of life-threatening illnesses including heart disease. It may even be more critical.

The study, which used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, looked at the diet and lifestyle habits of people divided into two groups: those with a normal or healthy body mass index (BMI) and those who were considered overweight based on their BMI. The researchers looked at the propensity of lower abdominal fat (a beer belly or gut) on subjects, whether or not participants were out of breath after basic level exertion, and whether or not they met recommended weekly exercise levels.

According to the researchers, participants who ate healthy food and maintained a healthy BMI but did little or no exercise increased their risk factor for a cardiovascular incident. The researchers also noted that for people who sit for long periods, which has been likened to having the same effect as smoking on one’s health, reduced their cardiovascular risk with regular exercise.

The research comes as a survey from data group Mintel found that consumers generally prefer exercise to healthy eating. According to those findings, 48 percent of consumers polled would rather work out to stay in shape than choose a healthier diet, such as the plant-based Mediterranean diet, which just ranked as the best overall diet by U.S. News & World Report.

“As exercise is the driving force behind jump-starting healthy lifestyle changes in the new year, healthy food marketers should consider associating their products with exercise to make the food a part of the emotional experience of healthy activity,” Mike Gallinari, travel and leisure analyst at Mintel, said in a release.

Most consumers said they were unlikely to change their diet preferences in order to stay healthy–only 20 percent said they would avoid sugar for the health benefits, and 12 percent said they would reduce calories to stay healthy and maintain an ideal BMI.

Despite the overwhelming consumer enthusiasm for exercise over diet, the authors of the first study say focusing on BMI may not be enough in mitigating risk factors. People who are naturally thin, or reach their target weight and BMI for their height, are still at risk of heart disease without a regular exercise practice.

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