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Diet or Exercise: Which one is more important for long-term health?

  • April 4, 2016

John Robbins’ book Healthy at 100 examines how life is different for people in parts of the world that have the most centenarians1. Is it diet, exercise or something else that is the secret to aging gracefully and remaining sharp mentally and physically?

Genetics plays a small role, but it’s lifestyle that really matters. Some of the oldest and healthiest people can be found in parts of: Ecuador; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Russia and Loma Linda, California, USA1,2. According to Robbins, they eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits picked fresh and grown without commercial pesticides. They eat legumes, seaweed, sweet potatoes, cultured yogurt and lots of greens1. Many of them use very little meat or use meat more as a flavoring than as the star of the meal. For others, meat is only served at special occasions and the portions are much smaller than what we are accustomed to in the USA1,2.

A team of researchers led by Dan Buettner of National Geographic found common denominators in the world’s “blue zones” (geographic areas with significantly more centenarians). In Buettner’s widely popular Ted Talk, he states that long-living people eat mostly plant-based foods, but importantly, they don’t diet2. I agree with him wholeheartedly when he says that “diets don’t work!” These people eat fresh, whole foods and have built in strategies to decrease portions, like smaller plates. They don’t rely on convenience stores or processed food for their nourishment. Nutrition matters, but not because people are obsessing about the latest fad diet. It seems that the secret to long life is just like Michael Pollan says: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”3

Of course, living well throughout life is so much more than diet. Physical activity is a critical component. But the good news is that you don’t need a structured, overly challenging exercise plan that is hard to keep up. Buettner states that exercise programs don’t work. The word “exercise” seems connotative of a job that has to be done and checked off the list of a supposed healthy life. But centenarians’ lives have regular physical activity built into daily tasks. More importantly, they do activity that they enjoy which is very different from exercise. Robbins found 100-year-old people in Vilcabamba, Ecuador routinely walking or running briskly up and down the mountain as a part of their daily life.

One of the reasons that dancers age well and are typically healthy is that their lives revolve around doing physical activity that they enjoy. Not all of us are lucky enough to have a job that requires us to dedicate our lives to a schedule of eight hours a day of exercise like professional dancers, but you don’t have to. The minimum requirement is only 30 minutes of activity per day and it doesn’t even have to be done at one time4.

Even professional dancers know that their bodies benefit from moving outside of dance class and rehearsal. Most cross train with diverse activities that work different muscles and invigorate the mind and spirit. I spoke to several dancers of Atlanta Ballet to see what activities they engage in: John Welker has discovered that using lighter weights with more repetitions as opposed to heavy weights with few reps helps him maintain upper body strength, as well as develop long, lean muscles instead of bulky ones. Heath Gill recovered stronger from a knee injury recently by incorporating biking into his routine. Veteran dancer Tara Lee says, “Yoga helps with understanding the principles of breath and the ability to feel comfortable in stillness.” Kelly Prather found that regularly walking her dog by the river is good exercise, but mostly it helps her relax and gets her out in the sunshine6.

All the dancers interviewed agreed that getting outside relieved stress and was important to finding balance to their busy lives. Stress reduction is a significant factor in aging gracefully and enjoying life.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that even mild to moderate exercise decreases anxiety, helps with better sleep, and can aid in stabilising mood5. Good nutrition too has been shown to decrease anxiety and help reduce stress.

Community is also an important factor in longevity and fulfillment. Both Buettner and Robbins cite numerous examples of 100+ year olds who are part of a community that helps them feel connected and supports them during times of struggle 1,2.

So, referring back to the original question – Is diet or exercise more important? My answer is neither. Enjoy life not by dieting but by instead eating fresh, unprocessed, delicious, mostly plant-based foods each day. Don’t rely on the latest fad diet, pill, powder or supplement. Move your body in a way that is fun and enjoyable, and even social. It’s more sustainable, more realistic, and might even help you live to be 100. I wonder if the secret to a long life is enjoying it?


1. Robbins, John. Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Longest-Lived Peoples. Ballantine Books. 2006.
2. Dan Buettner: How to Live to be 100+. Ted Talk 2009.
3. Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food. Penguin Books. 2008.
4. Hoffman J, Salerno JA. The Weight of the Nation: To Win We Have to Lose. St. Martin’s Press. 2012.
5. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
6. Atlanta Ballet Company Dancers. 2014. 

Photo (top): © Warrengoldswain |


By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Dance Informa and

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