Phone: 03 8822 3723

Why You Cannot Out-Exercise Poor Nutrition

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 10 January 2019
Hits: 8793

I’ve been working with clients as a Personal Trainer for over 14 years now and like most trainers who first start out, all I wanted to do was all the fun fitness exercises and methods. I always knew that diet was an important part of the training equation, but I thought that if I worked my clients hard as I did everything would just fall into place and come together. I thought my seriously intense training programs would be enough on their own to over ride any nutrition deficits they may have. While at times I was able to have a lot of fun with some clients, and there were definitely some who did achieve great results, I felt I was failing many others for my ignorance to the real issues. I was not helping them to see where their focus needed to be which had nothing to do with fitness. Sure, I wanted them to eat well. But my knowledge in helping them was flawed as I was basing everything on the calories in versus calories out equation. I felt well as long as they trained hard we could burn enough calories to counter their poor food choices. I assumed that training alone would be enough. I was wrong.

The Problem With Calorie Counting

One of the first lessons I learned early in my career is that calorie counting does not work. And even when it does work in terms of losing weight it is still not a good way to achieve optimal health. We must move beyond looking at weight loss as instantly being healthy. Someone can be a healthy weight range but extremely unhealthy as their body is deprived of essential vitamins and nutrients needed for optimal function of vital organs and bodily functions. We need our food to provide these essential vitamins and nutrients. We must look at our food as more than just fuel or energy to do exercise as it is so much more than that. 

There is several problems with calorie counting that you must consider.

  1. You can’t really trust that the calorie (and macronutrient) numbers you see on food packages are accurate. The way they are calculated is surprisingly imprecise and inconsistent.
  2. Plus, even if food package numbers were precise, once the food is cooked, or chopped, or blended, the amount of energy available for digestion and absorption changes.
  3. Then there’s what happens once that food enters your body.
  4. Calorie burn estimates with trackers like Fitbit are also very imprecise.
  5. Your stress levels, your history of weight gain and dieting can all dramatically influence your body's calorie expenditure.

As you can see it is not as simple as knowing how many calories you’re taking in with food or burning up with exercise as this can fluctuate significantly due to several unique factors.

I love the info-graphics that the guys at Precision Nutrition create that give great visual descriptions of how this works. I highly suggest you read their material in the links below

Below is a snippet from one of their info-graphics that I love to share with a lot of clients as many will relate to this very scenario.

I think most people are aware that you cannot eat junk food and exercise your way into good shape. The bigger question is if they deep down know this is true why do they still try to do it?

Why People Try To Exercise Their Way Into Great Shape?

There are many reasons why people might try to exercise their way into shape.

  • They love the way exercise feels and are addicted to the endorphin rush.
  • They have been a keen sports person or athlete all their life.
  • This is the method they used when they were younger and it used to work.

But the biggest reason is that many find exercising much easier than trying to change bad nutrition and lifestyle habits.

Changing nutrition habits is tough because there is always some pain in changing. When you have a weight problem, there is the pain it causes in your life, but there's also a pain of trying to change it. When the payoff of trying to change is outweighed by the pay off of continuing the old way, people stick with what they're comfortable with. For example the person who has exercised all their life and enjoys it would much rather increase their training sessions from 3 times per week to 5 times per week instead of giving up their Friday night fish and chips night or weekly glass of wine after dinner.

The secret to changing habits is to start small, starting with one thing at a time, and make the change easier. You can read our detailed article on this here - How To Change Bad Habits To Good Habits

If you make too many changes or a drastic change, it feels really hard and really different, and not something you can stick to for very long. By making it easier, it allows you to take that all-important first step. Once you take that first step, you have a bit of forward momentum. And it's much easier to be consistent and stick with something for a long time. Our minds tend to adjust over time. You can do this with any habit like always being late or getting to bed on time, just about anything. 

This brings me to my second big mistake in my career as a trainer. When I finally acknowledged that nutrition was equally as important as the exercise I tried to get my clients to do everything at once. Even though it may have been the right thing to do, and would definitely deliver the results, as we have just seen this type of plan was way too difficult. All it did was create friction and conflict between myself and the client. I thought they were just being stubborn and ignorant, and to some degree they were, but really the problem was I was trying to change too much too soon.

This is where we learned from our mistakes and created a simple step by step nutrition plan that allowed them to tackle ONE habit at a time every 2-3 weeks. They may need to change many things, but by focusing only on one the chances of succeeding were dramatically increased. You can download a PDF version of our detailed nutrition program by clicking here.

For a breakdown of many other simple methods we use with clients I highly suggest to read our article - 16 Ways To Improve Your Health

The Danger Of Stress

Another big factor in this equation that will sabotage any of your best efforts is - STRESS!

When we are under a lot of stress the first thing that gets dropped is our focus on exercise, eating healthy and getting enough rest. The body will turn to comfort foods, avoiding any hard work from exercise and basically sabotage everything you may have done up to this point to protect itself from harm. It is also the main reason why people find it hard to start a health program for they have too much stress already and just the thought of starting a health program, even though it is good for them, sounds too hard, and feels just like more stress.

You can read more about strategies for managing stress in our article - How To Overcome Stress & Improve Your Health

Is Exercise Even Needed?

On the other side of the equation are people who hate exercise and believe that good health is all about eating right and exercise is not necessary. They may use walking as their form of exercise and while this is a great start, they are missing out on the incredible benefits that a good exercise program provides. Many of these people see great short term results in particular with losing weight but, over the long term new problems begin to surface, and as you will see shortly may also suffer with other problems that good food can simply not improve.

The pro-dieter camp who believe that diet is key and no reasonable amount of exercise can beat eating processed foods of today. Eliminating processed foods is great, however the reduction in food quantity that helps lose weight in the beginning brings about some other changes that many are unaware of.

It has been scientifically proven that when you lose weight, your metabolism slows. This is called metabolic adaptation, and it’s perfectly normal. Metabolic adaptation is a natural defense mechanism against starvation. When you’re dieting, at a certain point, your body will send out signals of:

  • Starvation alert!
  • There’s not enough food to go around!
  • Hold onto the fat reserves!

At that point, your Resting Metabolic Rate slows down. Metabolic adaptation can make things more complicated (and frustrating) for dieters who hope to continue or maintain their weight loss.

Once these signals are released the calorie restriction no longer has the same effect it did at the beginning of their diet. Next thing you see is that, they need to cut more calories just to maintain the same weight. This is your body’s way attempt of maintaining homeostasis to keep the system running well. If they do not cut the calories further, weight begins to creep back on even though they are eating the same as they were when everything worked the first time.

This will sound very familiar to anyone reading this who has tried to implement the plan that has worked before and now does nothing. The Precision Nutrition guys have a great article about this that is well worth a read -  I know exactly what to do. What is perfectly clear is that the faster your metabolism is the easier it is to maintain a healthy weight. And what influences metabolism more than any other thing? 

MUSCLE! And the only way to add muscle is by using exercise.

Your Choice Of Exercise Is Important

Let's say you have got your nutrition under control but you still need to lose some weight. Is exercise even needed? Of course, but the choice of exercise is very important. And again this is where people can make a few mistakes that will affect their results significantly.

Being overweight is a HEALTH problem, not a fitness problem. See our article - Why You Cannot Use Fitness Methods To Solve Health Problems

Most people believe that the key to losing fat and getting in shape is to spend lots of time doing long slow cardio sessions. If you don’t get a sweat then it is not a good workout! Again this has really evolved from the method of calorie counting and trying to burn heaps of calories to lose weight. Unfortunately this sets people up for a series of problems.

According to a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, People who performed intense cardio suffered from decreased T3 hormone production. (Eur J Appl Physiol. 2003 Jan; 88(4-5):480-4.) T3 is the hormone produced by your thyroid to burn fat. When you do cardio, your body reacts to the stress by suppressing this fat burning hormone. This means your body starts gaining fat straight away for the body needs the fat in order to function. And on top of all this this excessive cardio also puts massive amounts of stress on your body by increasing the stress hormone cortisol.

So what exercise should you use? Strength training combined with daily walking and some interval training. Strength training is the real key.

Here is a just a short list of the various benefits of using a strength training program to add muscle.

  1. Muscle is the biggest influence on your metabolic rate. The more you have the faster your metabolism and the easier it is to lose weight
  2. Muscle regulates hormones and prevents disease like diabetes and cancer often caused from insulin resistance
  3. Muscle improves bone density and prevents bone fractures, osteoporosis, sarcopenia, and can even reverse arthritis.
  4. Muscle prevents injury and improves stability across all joints
  5. Muscle improves sporting performance by increasing speed and power.

Below is some videos that explain this in detail.

For more information on how to go about strength training you will find many great FREE REPORTS with tons of information by clicking here

I also suggest to read our article - How Functional Movement Can Improve Your Quality Of Life


Finding the balance between exercise and healthy eating is a constant struggle for people today. We are time poor, stressed out, over worked and fatigued. The longer we remain in this cycle the more our health is compromised and the potential for illness, injury and disease is increased. We hope this article has provided you with some great ideas of how you can achieve health by adopting many of the methods shown. We know that you cannot exercise your way into good health if your nutrition is poor. You must devote as much attention to eating well, getting to bed on time, keeping your stress levels under control as you do with your exercise program. If you get it right you will be able to achieve all of your goals and be able to thrive in life with great health.

If you live in Melbourne and would like to know more about any of our programs please click the image below to request a free consultation.