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You can’t exercise away a bad diet

By December 14, 2012No Comments

A long time ago, I believed I could undo overindulgence by exercising it away.  Too many biscuits?  Fix it with an extra hour on the treadmill.  Too much wine?  Do a step class.

But it didn’t actually work.  And what’s more by believing it I was permitting myself to stick with the poor diet – too much sugar, alcohol and the wrong type of fats, too little protein and fibre.   And I was spending more and more time in the gym trying without success to burn it off.

Doing some calorie maths, it’s easy to see why exercise can’t fix overindulgence.  4 glasses of wine add up to around 750 calories.  Throw in a large bag of crisps or a few nibbles and you’ve had 1000 excess calories in an evening down the pub.  And that’s not including the kebab on the way home.  One hour of running for an average man burns around 600 calories an hour (less for a woman), so you can calculate how much running you’d have to fit in to burn away a single night out.  I’m using a purely cardio activity as an example here as this does seem to be the type of exercise people turn to when they want to burn off too much food.

My story is that I eventually got to the point where I was spending way too much time doing way too much cardio, and I decided that either I should learn how to exercise more effectively or I should give it up as pointless.

So I started working out with a personal trainer (Jeremy Boyd – find him at  I’d been doing all the wrong things in the gym, and when I started doing the right things I was able to cut out the endless cardio sessions and spend much less time in the gym, whilst finally seeing some changes in how my body looked.

But it wasn’t long before I realised that if I was going to achieve the lean physique I’d always wanted, I had to clean up my diet.  The best workouts in the world were not going to deliver if I was fuelling my body with overly refined foods and too much alcohol.   I’ve talked about calories so far but I learnt it’s not really about calories.  100 calories worth of chicken, 100 calories worth of chocolate and 100 calories worth of broccoli are all very different – there are calories which deliver nutrients to support lean bodies and there are calories which don’t.  Look out for a future blog about this.

So I started making changes – every week Jeremy would suggest a new tweak to my diet, and slowly I started seeing my body fat levels decrease, and my lean muscle increase.

And a major change in my attitude occurred – I no longer saw food and exercise as two opposing forces, with one negating the other.  I started to appreciate food as a quality fuel for quality workouts.  And I understood how true the saying “You are what you eat” really is.  I wanted to eat well.

Most health experts will say that looking good is 80% diet and 20% exercise.  And the exercise can only be effective if it’s fuelled by quality food.

So my message is this – don’t use exercise to burn away a bad diet.  You won’t succeed.  Clean up your diet and reap the benefits in how you look, how you feel and how your workouts feel.  And you’ll find yourself creating a positive cycle of leanness – good quality food and the right type of exercise will create all-important muscle fibres which burn extra energy all day long, helping towards that lean physique.

Look out for lots of advice on cleaning up your diet and the best types of exercise in the New Year!