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Nutrition vs Exercise: Which one improves longevity the most?

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

Those who know me know how passionate I've gotten about evidence based nutrition, but what most people don't know is that I'm even more passionate about exercise and its relationship to health and longevity. In fact, if you're already familiar with my health journey, then you'll remember how my life was severely impacted by asthma, urticaria, exercise induced migraines and cholinergic angioedema. These debilitating conditions were aggravated each time I exercised, and this was devastating for a life long athlete like me.

To start, let's have fun with this quick poll!

Which of these two improve longevity the most?

  • 0%Nutrition

  • 0%Exercise

After a complete lifestyle overhaul, I managed to reverse these conditions with nutrition and I've been able to ditch all of the medications I used to take. I've since managed to qualify for the UNAA World Ninja Championships, a gruelling obstacle course competition.

My life has revolved around sports since a young age and at 41 years of age, I'm still working out daily.

Whether it's on my rower, my spin bike, in my weight room, or on long trail runs, I am always active and truly believe that my responsibility as a role model for my daughters is the main factor that fuels my athletic journey. That being said, I also workout for physical health, mental health and because I like it. In fact, I quickly notice suffering from lower mood, more anxiety and reduced focus when I don't exercise. Although this is my personal experience with exercise, science does support all of the benefits that I experience.

My workouts are intense. I workout at least 6 days out of 7 and often 7 out of 7. I love to train with calisthenics, which means training with my body weight. I spend lots of time training in what exercise physiologists call "Zone 2", a term I'll define later, and make sure to hit my max heart rate, or "Zone 5" at least once or twice per week. I use resistance training to build and maintain strength and muscle mass and achieve this using pull-ups, push-ups, dips, squats, deadlifts and balance training.

In this blog post, I'll detail how exercise impacts longevity and I'll also give you some of my favorite tips to live a healthier and longer life by using exercise to your advantage.

Exercise For Longevity

What people fail to understand is that going from no exercise to any exercise has greatest impact of all when it comes to helping you live a longer life free from disease. You can be eating a super healthy diet, but if you're not exercising regularly, you are leaving many benefits on the table. In fact, cardio respiratory fitness as measured by VO2 max, is the most potent predictor of longevity, even more than nutrition quality. VO2 max represents the maximal amount of oxygen you're able to consume in a minute. A 2018 study published in JAMA showed that those with the highest VO2 max had a 500% improvement in longevity when compared to those who had the least cardio respiratory fitness. Just as a comparison, those who are non-diabetic have a 40% improvement in longevity when compared to diabetics. The chart below compares many different risk factors and their hazard ratio. This illustrates the longevity impact of the risk factor in question when compared to a similar population without that risk factor. Being a current smoker has less of an impact on longevity when compared to being sedentary. Not exercising regularly has more negative impacts on your potential lifespan than most risk factors and people who are not exercising should be considered at much higher risk of not living a long and fulfilling life.

Also, to reap the benefits of exercise, the biggest bang for your buck will occur by simply moving from the "low fitness" group to the "below average" group. You don't need to be running marathons to live longer. You simply need to be moving from being inactive, to being less inactive.

A reasonable way of increasing your cardio respiratory fitness is to train in specific "Zones". Zone 2 describes cardio activities with sub maximal efforts where your heart rate would be around 70% of your max heart rate (HR). Your max HR can be roughly determined by substracting your age from 220. Using that equation, my max HR would hover around 179-180. So my "Zone 2" would be an intensity level where my HR would hover around 125-135. At this level of exertion, you are burning more fat that carbs, which means that you're increasing mitochondrial and metabolic health. I train in Zone 2 at least 2-3 times per week and stay in that zone for at least 12-20 minutes per session. In my "Zone 5" training sessions, I try to hit my max HR of 175-180. At this level of exertion, we are burning mostly carbs and using a different energy burning system, which comes with a different set of health benefits. By regularly training in both zones 2 and 5, we build up both aerobic and anaerobic capacity and increase health and longevity in the process.

All this to say that exercise doesn't have to mean marathons. It can be easy walks for 20-30 minutes. Simply getting off the couch is guaranteed to improve all of your health markers. In terms of weight loss, nutrition will help much more than exercise, but in terms of lifespan and healthspan, improving cardio respiratory fitness is where it's at.

The figure below illustrates how the biggest improvement in survival happens by simply going from the "low" fitness group to the "below average" group.

The Role Of Nutrition In Increasing Lifespan and Healthspan

All of this doesn't mean that nutrition is not helpful to improve health. In fact, studies show that most of us get over 50-60% of our daily calories from processed and ultra-processed foods. Consuming 4 servings of ultra-processed foods per day comes with an increased in all-cause mortality of 62% when compared to those who consume whole foods. Remember that ultra-processed foods include sugar sweetened beverages, white bread and processed breakfast cereals. Some consume 4 servings of ultra-processed foods in their breakfast alone. This huge increase in mortality is still nothing when compared to the 500% mortality difference we can measure between those with the highest and lowest markers of cardio respiratory fitness, VO2 max.

My Longevity Prescription

Basically, what I'm saying is that the two most potent changes you can make to improve your chances of survival are:

  • reduce or remove ultra-processed foods as much as possible from your diet and replace them with whole foods and eat them as close to their natural state as possible

  • increase your physical activity by getting off the couch. Even if you don't lose weight, or don't run marathons, just a brisk walk for 20 minutes a few times per week is likely to be the single best thing you can do for your health

Personally, this is what I do for my health and longevity:

  • I consume a 100% plant-based diet. Most of the foods I eat are whole unprocessed plants, except for the occasional scoop of protein powder on training days

  • I train at least 20-30 minutes in Zone 2, at least twice per week

  • I make sure to reach my max heart rate at least once or twice per week by using HIIT (high intensity interval training)

  • I do resistance training with body weight exercises at least 3 times per week

  • I use time restricted feeding (fasting) on Saturday and Sunday mornings and try to hold off on my first meal until noon

My suggestion to you would be to make a mental list of what would create the least amount of friction in your life, then start low and go slow.

Consistency will overshadow intensity in all facets of life, including nutrition and exercise. If you're going to do only one thing, then start by talking brisk walks when you can. These recommendations are backed by high quality science and I attached the studies for the nerds like me out there!

Check out my website and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches! If you're looking for quick, easy and healthy plant-based recipes, check out and download my free recipe eBook!

Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior. I'm a two-time world championship qualified athlete and you can follow my fitness journey there! You can even access the resources section by becoming a member. It's free and there, you can download free resources like my plant-based recipe eBook!

You also check out my YouTube channel here for more tips and tricks on how to embark on a plant-based journey!

Thanks so much for reading! Please consider sharing this article!

Plant-Based Dr. Jules 💚🌱

Mandsager K, Harb S, Cremer P, Phelan D, Nissen SE, Jaber W. Association of Cardiorespiratory Fitness With Long-term Mortality Among Adults Undergoing Exercise Treadmill Testing. JAMA Netw Open. 2018 Oct 5;1(6):e183605. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.3605. PMID: 30646252; PMCID: PMC6324439.

Rico-Campà A, Martínez-González MA, Alvarez-Alvarez I, Mendonça RD, de la Fuente-Arrillaga C, Gómez-Donoso C, Bes-Rastrollo M. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2019 May 29;365:l1949. doi: 10.1136/bmj.l1949. PMID: 31142450; PMCID: PMC6538973.

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Jun 11, 2023

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