SOPHIA ANTIPOLIS, France — Are 10,000 steps a day just too much to get in? No problem, a new study finds switching to a healthier diet is worth the same as taking thousands of steps. Researchers find that consuming more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains can be as beneficial for older individuals as taking an additional 4,000 steps daily.
The findings suggest that such dietary habits can enhance various organ systems, including those of the heart, lungs, blood vessels, and muscles. Scientists add that diet can significantly influence cardiorespiratory fitness, which reflects the body’s capacity to supply and utilize oxygen during exercise.
“This study provides some of the strongest and most rigorous data thus far to support the connection that better diets may lead to higher fitness,” says study author Dr. Michael Mi of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in a media release. “The improvement in fitness we observed in participants with better diets was similar to the effect of taking 4,000 more steps each day.”
Studies show that healthy diets have the potential to decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death worldwide. Among individuals engaging in the same amount of physical activity, there are observable variations in fitness levels, suggesting the role of other influential factors.
The study, which involved 2,380 middle-aged American men and women, identified nutrition as a key factor. Participants completed a food frequency questionnaire, assessing the consumption of 126 items over the past year. Their responses, ranging from never or less than once per month to six or more servings daily, helped researchers calculate diet quality using the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI; 0 to 110) and Mediterranean-style Diet Score (MDS; 0 to 25), both associated with heart health.
A higher score indicates a superior quality diet, emphasizing the intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish, and healthy fats, while limiting red meat and alcohol consumption.
“In middle-aged adults, healthy dietary patterns were strongly and favorably associated with fitness even after taking habitual activity levels into account. The relationship was similar in women and men, and more pronounced in those under 54 years of age compared to older adults,” Dr. Mi says.
Further analysis revealed 24 metabolites – substances produced during digestion and released into the blood during exercise – displayed a link to either a poor or favorable diet and fitness level.
“Our metabolite data suggest that eating healthily is associated with better metabolic health, which could be one possible way that it leads to improved fitness and ability to exercise,” Dr. Mi continues.
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The research team took into account various factors, including age, sex, total daily energy intake, BMI (body mass index), smoking status, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diabetes, and regular physical activity level. The average AHEI and MDS were 66.7 and 12.4, respectively. Compared with the average score, an increase of 13 points on the AHEI and 4.7 on the MDS was associated with a 5.2-percent and 4.5-percent greater “peak VO2” – the maximum amount of oxygen the body can utilize during exercise – respectively.
“This was an observational study, and we cannot conclude that eating well causes better fitness, or exclude the possibility of a reverse relationship, i.e. that fit individuals choose to eat healthily,” the researcher concludes.
“There are already many compelling health reasons to consume a high-quality diet, and we provide yet another one with its association with fitness. A Mediterranean-style diet with fresh, whole foods and minimal processed foods, red meat, and alcohol is a great place to start.”
The study is published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.