When working to improve our overall wellness, good nutrition and exercise go hand in hand.
Neither process is easy at first, but if we focus on the long-term benefits, our goals can evolve as we progress.
“There’s no quick fixes, there’s no shortcut to optimal health and there isn’t a fad diet or a magical pill that’s going to make this work. An overall healthy lifestyle is going to consist of physical activity and then balanced regular meals made up of whole foods or real foods,” said Crossfit Unstoppable fitness trainer Aaron Washburn.
By whole foods or real foods, Washburn is referring to foods that are low in calories and are in their most natural state.
These foods, in turn, will give our bodies the carbs that give us enough energy to get through a workout, fats that help protect our cells and basic bodily functions and proteins that provide materials that muscles need to repair themselves after a challenging workout.
“There are fad diets out there that kind of demonize any one of those things, but understanding that all of them in moderation is ideal,” Washburn said.
It may be helpful to keep in mind the foods that can hinder your workout, such as processed and preserved foods. These foods can often be found in the center aisles of the grocery store and have had to go through some sort of chemical processing for them to stay viable on the shelf and prevent bacteria from forming.
“The example I like to give is ranch dressing. Now, if I made ranch dressing, I would use some form of dairy and dairy shouldn’t be able to sit on a store shelf. By it’s natural state, it shouldn’t be able to do that, yet the dressing can so there was some sort of process that was done to that product so that it could sit on the shelf and that’s the stuff that we want to try and avoid,” Washburn said.
The foods that you will want to look for such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats and eggs also tend to be located around the perimeter of the grocery store and do not have labels on them. However, you can also find some of these items in the freezer section. Although it is best to eat non-processed foods when they are fresh, you can save a bit of money by buying them frozen while they are out of season.
If you are looking to achieve specific physical goals, you will still want to keep on a good nutrition track for your workouts, but you will need to alter portions of the types of foods you consume.
For example, while the nutrition diet for runners and weight-lifters have a lot of similarities, the portions of certain foods will differ in order for the athletes to see the result they’re looking for.
“A runner’s body and the body of a weight-lifter are different, so part of that is what they’re feeding their body. A runner is going to have more focus on more carbs and fats and the weight-lifter is going to want to make sure that they have plenty of protein to go along with their diet that will help aid their muscle development,” Washburn explained.
Even if you aren’t looking to train for a specific workout, exercise and good nutrition also becomes more important as we age.
“Aging is linked to muscle loss, thinner skin, reduced stomach acid, decreased recognition to hunger and thirst, and decreased estrogen in post-menopausal women. Decreased estrogen leads to weight gain and loss of bone mass. Nutrition plays an important role in managing these changes as we age,” said Laura Allen, a physical therapist who works in sports medicine and rehabilitation at SSM Health. “As a person ages, they should be diligent about taking time to eat nutritional foods and taking time to hydrate often. Talking to their physician and a nutritionist is best to get the proper diet recommendations that suits their specific needs.”
According to an article published by the National Institute of Health in 2017, the differences in energy intake throughout our adulthood is significant. The analysis found that healthy 70-year-olds and 26-year-olds have a difference in energy intake of approximately 16-20 percent. This would be a decrease in energy of about 0.5 percent per year and estimates a fall in energy intake to be around 25-30 percent between young adulthood and older age.
In a study of older adults living on their own in New York City, 73 percent of women and 78 percent of men did not have diet scores that would be defined by the Healthy Eating Index as ‘good.’ This percentage was found to be even higher in rural older adults, with 98 percent of older participants found to be below a good eating index.
“Good nutrition can help with so many different functions of the body, such as lowering the intake of fat, cholesterol and sodium to reduce the risk of heart disease. Increasing the intake of calcium and vitamin D aid in stronger bones, while protein helps with building muscle. Foods rich in vitamin D and omega-3 are good for joint health. Antioxidant-rich foods tend to ease inflammation of the body. An anti-inflammatory diet might consist of kale, spinach, cherries, blueberries and blackberries, just to name a few,” Allen said.
The biggest risk for Americans today is heart disease, but a nutritious diet paired with exercise can especially benefit those who are already experiencing heart-related illnesses.
“Nutrition plays a very important role because if you’re not healthy because of your nutrition, then it’s very hard for your body to compensate and heal when it’s sick. So for instance, if you’re not giving your body the water or the correct proteins that your body is needing, your body is fighting against itself for those electrolytes and then it’s not going to help correctly when we’re trying to heal the heart,” said Jaylin Bolinger, a cardiac specialist at Capital Region Health Complex.
Similar to someone who is in physical training, your diet routine will have to be adjusted based on your goals.
“In cardiac rehab, the No. 1 rehab is a plant-based diet and it’s very hard to get our patients to be receptive to that. If we get them to change even to a dash diet we can see people in here have more energy or even tell us that they’re feeling better,” Bolinger said. “A dash diet is a diet that we go to if a patient really isn’t receptive to the plant-based diet. It’s lower sodium, 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, and you eat more wheat, fruits and vegetables, less red meat and more fish and chicken, and it’s a diet that’s really easy for our patients to go along with.”
As you continue an exercise routine, your portions may also need to adjust.
“Some people will come in and they’re sedentary, they don’t exercise at all, they’re used to a lifestyle where they watch TV and maybe go shop here and there, but they don’t do a lot of exercises. So that person who’s sedentary might need a lot less calories than when that same person is graduating from our program and they’re doing 30-60 minutes of activity every day … I would recommend still eating lots of fruits and vegetables, low saturated fats, low sodium. So that will stay the same, but the amount will change a little as they get used to exercising,” said Mackenzie Beck, who is also a Capital Regions cardiac specialist who works in sports medicine.
Thankfully, tracking our calories and portion sizes has become a relatively easy task. Although it is best to stay away from labeled foods, there are several weight loss tracker apps that can help you track your calories by simply scanning barcodes. These apps can also track the calories in non-labeled foods, such as meats, fruit and vegetables, and suggest portions sizes, as well as meal plans to keep you within your daily calorie goal.
If you prefer not to use an app, you can still keep a good track by learning to eye portion sizes. A typical dinner often includes a meat, grain and vegetable. So for a 2,000 calorie diet, good portions for a single meal should consist of 3 ounces of lean meat (chicken, turkey or fish) which looks like the size of your palm, a half cup of grain (rice, pasta) which is as big as a cupped handful and a cup of vegetables which can also be compared to the size of your fist.
And when dining out, you should keep in mind that restaurants portions are often three to four times larger than actual healthy portion sizes.
Of course, there may be some cheat days, especially during holidays, but by keeping it to only one bad meal, night or even a bad weekend, you can still achieve your overall goal.
Seeing results from increased physical activity and a good nutrition plan can vary per person because it often depends on where that person is starting from, but most people begin seeing noticeable physical results between 30 to 90 days. However, people can often see small results within that window such as body composition and an increase of natural energy, or even a decrease in certain symptoms that they have been experiencing.
Whatever your physical goal, it is important to remember that it is never too late to begin a healthy eating and exercise plan.
“When I get new patients I tell them it doesn’t matter where they have to start. If they stick to eating well and exercising, they are going to improve over time,” Beck said.