If you’re trying to get healthy, tackling both diet and exercise is better than trying to improve one lifestyle habit at a time, new research suggests. But…the researchers did add that if you need to start with just one lifestyle change, choose exercise. They found that changing your diet first may interfere with attempts to establish a regular exercise routine.
The study included 200 people, aged 45 and older, who were inactive and had poor diets. They were split into four groups: new diet and exercise habits at the same time; diet changes first and starting exercise a few months later; starting exercise first and making diet changes a few months later; and no diet or exercise changes.
The groups received telephone coaching and were tracked for a year. Those who made diet and exercise changes at the same time were most likely to meet U.S. guidelines for exercise (150 minutes per week) and nutrition (5 to 9 servings of fruit and vegetables per day), and to keep calories from saturated fat at less than 10 percent of their total intake of calories.
The people who started with exercise first and diet changes a few months later also did a good job of meeting both the exercise and diet goals, but not quite as good as those who made exercise and diet changes at the same time, the Stanford University School of Medicine researchers said in a news release from Stanford.
The participants who made diet changes first and started exercise later did a good job of meeting the dietary goals but didn’t meet their exercise targets. This may be because each type of change has unique characteristics, explained study author Abby King, a professor of health research and policy and of medicine.
“With dietary habits, you have no choice; you have to eat. You don’t have to find extra time to eat because it’s already in your schedule. So the focus is more on substituting the right kinds of food to eat,” she said in the news release.
However, people with busy schedules may have difficulty finding time for exercise. King noted that even the people in the most successful group (diet and exercise changes at the same time) initially had trouble meeting their exercise goal, but did achieve it by the end of the study.
The study was published online April 21 in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.