We all know the two magic bullets for a healthier lifestyle: eating well and staying fit. It’s finding the time and energy to do those two things that’s the problem.
Starting a diet is difficult enough on its own, even when you’re just replacing unhealthy items with healthy ones. Ditto for starting that exercise regimen your doctor keeps urging: 150 minutes a week is more time than I have, okay, Doc?
So it would seem that giving yourself time to get used to one change before adding the other is the logical way to go, right?
Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered that tackling both—diet and exercise—at the same time is more effective than changing one and then the other.
For their study, which was published in the April issue of Annals of Behavioral Medicine, the research team focused on people over the age of 44 who “complained that the demands of their schedules didn't give them enough time to make healthy dietary and exercise choices,” according to the press release. All 200 participants were inactive and had “sub-optimal” diets.
After an initial meeting, they received coaching by telephone every month for a year and were divided into four groups:
1. Those who were encouraged to start an exercise routine first, and then, after a few months, were coached to eat better.
2. Those who started diet coaching first and added exercise later.
3. A “simultaneous” group that started both at the same time.
4. The control group, which wasn’t coached in either, but received stress-relief counseling.
After a year the “simultaneous” group was the most successful at meeting their goals: 150 minutes of exercise a week, five to nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables, and low saturated fat intake. The exercise-first group also had some success with both, but less so than the simultaneous group; and the diet-firsters stuck with their diets, but failed to hit exercise targets.
The reason, speculates lead researcher Abby King, is because exercise demands more time than a diet does.
“With dietary habits, you have no choice; you have to eat,” she said. “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.”
In a nutshell, diet is less of a burden if you’re already working out than the other way around. Better still to lump them together if you’re going to make the motivational expenditure; but if you can’t, says King, “consider starting with physical activity first.”