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Tandem diet-exercise step-up better than one at a time, study says

April 22, 2013|By Mary MacVean
  • A fitness class at the YMCA in Glendale.
A fitness class at the YMCA in Glendale. (Los Angeles Times )

Think of the adage that if you want something done, get the busy person to do it.

People who change their diet and start exercising at the same time – as opposed to doing them one at a time – were more successful, researchers at Stanford School of Medicine found.

Few studies have looked at dietary change and exercise together, and the few studies that look at how to introduce more than one healthy change into people’s lives are conflicting, the researchers said in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Their work was published online Sunday.

If a person is going to do one thing at a time, exercise should be first, followed by dietary changes, the authors said.

The researchers followed 186 adults 45 and older who did not meet federal guidelines for healthful eating and exercise (150 minutes a week is the goal) They were divided into four groups and given regular telephone counseling for a year. The participants were not trying to lose weight and wanted to develop healthy habits.

Those who tried to change diet and exercise habits did best, followed by those who did exercise first, then added diet and then those who tried diet first. A control group was given stress management education. (The diet-first group did a good job at meeting the dietary goals but not the exercise goals, the researchers said.)

There is theoretical support for changing one habit at a time: the idea of breaking complex behavior patterns down into small steps that can be mastered.  And some research has shown that changing habits simultaneously can be difficult: For instance, a study of hypertension patients showed them less successful when they tried to lose weight and follow a low-sodium diet at the same time than when they tried one at a time, the researchers said.

It may make a difference what habits are targeted, they said.

View the study's abstract here.

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