Making changes to the way you live and eat can be challenging, especially when you’re pressed for time. You want to eat a healthy diet and exercise – but which should you focus on first? Previously, a number of experts have recommended changing the way you eat initially and then focusing on exercise habits – but a new study from Stanford University came to an entirely different conclusion.
Should You Change Your Exercise Habits or Eating Habits First?
Researchers assigned 200 healthy middle-aged women who wanted to adopt a healthier lifestyle to one of four groups. One group of women made dietary changes before starting an exercise program. A second group did the opposite, started an exercise program and then focused on cleaning up their diet. The third group changed their diet and exercised at the same time. A fourth group served as a control group.
The participants were encouraged to meet the general guidelines for a heart-healthy diet, at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and to keep saturated fat to less than 10% of their total fat intake. Exercise consisted of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. The only real coaching they received were short telephone sessions to make sure they were staying on target.
Which group was most successful at making healthy lifestyle changes? The group that worked on changing both their eating AND exercise habits at the same time fared the best. The next most successful group were those that started exercising prior to focusing on their diet. Seems there are some benefits to making diet and exercise changes at the same time rather than targeting one before the other.
Which is Best for Weight Loss?
The participants in this study were simply trying to adopt healthier lifestyle habits. This study didn’t look at the issue of weight loss. What it showed it that it’s possible to change more than one healthy habit at the same time and be successful. But what if you’re trying to lose weight?
Some studies show that diet impacts weight loss more than exercise does, at least initially. On the other hand, exercise is critical for maintaining a lower weight once you lose it. Some people lose weight by dieting alone and never get around to starting an exercise program. Not surprisingly, many gain all the original weight back and sometimes more once they stop dieting. This starts a cycle of yo-yo dieting that slows down their metabolism and makes it more difficult to lose weight again in the future.
Exercise is an important part of any weight control program. After all, you’re trying to lose body fat, not muscle. Strength-training helps you hang onto your lean body mass as you shed fat so you don’t suffer from the perils of being “skinny-fat.” Skinny-fat people have a normal weight but a high body fat percentage because they lose muscle along with fat when they don’t exercise. That’s not good for your health or your appearance.
Exercise for Weight Maintenance
In an article published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers found that habits that were most important for weight maintenance are exercising regularly, eating low-fat protein and giving yourself rewards (not necessarily foods) for sticking with the plan. Of the two, weight loss and weight maintenance, maintaining a lower weight once you’ve lost it is the most challenging. A regular exercise program that focuses on both strength-training and aerobic exercise gives you the “edge” when it comes to maintaining a lower weight once you lose it. The most important thing is to be consistent.
The Bottom Line?
Whether you’re trying to lead a healthier lifestyle or lose weight, a healthy diet and exercise should both be part of the overall plan. It’s a two-pronged approach to weight loss and weight maintenance that really works for changing your body composition and your health. Make a commitment to change unhealthy eating habits AND bad exercise habits regularly – and reap the benefits.
Science Daily. “Change Diet, Exercise Habits at Same Time for Best Results, Study Says”
WebMD. “Tactics Are Different for Weight Loss, Maintenance”