Previously, weight-loss experts have said you should focus on your diet first and then concentrate on exercise; but the study, which appears in this month’s Annals of Behavioral Medicine, said focusing on both right up front is the way to go.
However, study author Abby King, a professor of health research and policy and of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, said “if you need to start with one, consider starting with physical activity first.”
King and her team looked at published studies in which more than one change was made to health habits – and the results were conflicting. She also noticed researchers hadn’t really looked at what happens when people attempted to change more than one habit at a time. That’s what made her decide to start her own investigation.
King’s focus was on people who said they didn’t have enough time to think about changing their diet and exercise at the same time. She thought if she could find it worked for that group, then it could work for any group.
Researchers recruited 200 people over the age of 45 who were not regularly exercising or eating healthy for the study. The participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups, and all of them were coached over the telephone for one year.
One coach helped the group make changes to both diet and exercise – at the same time. A second coach tackled diet first, then exercise. A third coach encouraged the group to worry about exercise first and their diet later.
The fourth group was a control group – so they didn’t concentrate on diet or exercise, but rather how to manage stress.
All the groups had to maintain the U.S. guidelines of eating five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables per day, making sure calories from saturated fats were less than 10 percent of their total intake, and exercise for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate activity.
The most successful group was the one who changed their diet and exercise at the same time, despite having a busy lifestyle. The group who concentrated on fitness first found the next-best results.
King said she thought coaching over the phone played a key role, since the study’s participants were already so busy. Telephone sessions did not last more than 40 minutes at a time, and sometimes they lasted only 10 minutes.