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Tackling Diet and Exercise at the Same Time Leads to Better Results

Update Date: Apr 22, 2013 09:16 AM EDT

People who tackle diet and exercise at the same time may have more success at achieving long-lasting results, according to Stanford researchers.

While many weight loss programs say that people should first focus on changing diet, then exercise, a new U.S. study reveals that changing both eating and exercise habits at the same produced better results than tackling them one at a time.

"It may be particularly useful to start both at the same time," lead author Abby King, a professor of health research, policy and medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, said in a news release. "If you need to start with one, consider starting with physical activity first."

The latest study, published April 21 in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, was based on data from 200 participants aged 45 years and older.

Researchers divided the participants into four different groups.  The first group learned to make changes to diet and exercise at the same time.  The second group learned to make diet changes first and then exercise changes a few months later.  The third group learned to make exercise changes first and then diet changes months later.  The fourth group, or control group, did not make any dietary or exercise changes, and were instead taught stress-management techniques. Researchers monitored participants for about a year.

The study revealed that participants in the first group, who were asked to change their diet and exercise habits at the same time, were most likely to meet national guidelines for exercise (150 minutes per week) and nutrition (five to nine servings of fruit and vegetable daily and keeping calories from saturated fats at 10 percent or less of their total intake).

While participants in the second group, who started with exercise first, were able to stick to their exercise and diet goals, their results weren't quite as good as those in the first group.

The third group who focused on diet first did a good job meeting the dietary goals but didn't meet their exercise goals.

Researchers noted that participants in the first group found it difficult to meet their physical activity goal at first, but were eventually able to meet both their dietary and exercise goals.

"These health behaviors aren't things that we change over a six-week period and then our job is done," King explained. "They're things that people grapple with their whole lives, so to develop 'touches' of advice and support in a cost-efficient way is becoming more and more important."

King says the results are surprising because many doctors and nutritionists often encourage people to tackle one healthy habit at a time, according to USA Today.

"For some people, that may be the best approach, but we found that you may get the most bang for your buck by making these changes together," King told the U.S. newspaper.

However, researchers noted that participants in the latest study just wanted to develop healthy habits, and weren't actively trying to lose weight.  King and her team say the next step is to repeat the experiment with participants looking to lose weight.

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