Should I Add Exercise or Change My Diet First?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about baby steps. As I find myself at a new highest weight (for the third time since I started my journey to greater health), I’m looking back to see what worked. What didn’t work. What new things I might consider trying.

Remember, the goal here isn’t just to lose weight. It’s to develop healthy habits that can last a lifetime. So when I’m looking for what worked and what didn’t, I’m not looking for what helped me lose weight, necessarily. I want to find ways to live more healthfully that I can sustain until I’m six feet under.

So when I came across an interview with a psychologist who specializes in obesity, diet, and exercise, I was all ears to what she had to say.

The chicken or the egg?

The portion of the interview that really caught my attention was whether you should try to change your diet or your exercise habits first if you’re just starting out with trying to get healthier.

Do I change diet or exercise first?Both the interviewer (a personal trainer) and the interviewee advocated an exercise-first approach. The theory is that exercise is a “keystone habit“. If you can establish that habit first, the thinking goes, then there is a trickle-down effect that makes it easier to establish other habits.

This intrigued me. For some reason, I had always had a stronger focus on dietary changes first. I thought that was the way to go. Of course, looking back, it’s been clear from the get-go that I’ve struggled with maintaining consistent exercise habits. So maybe that should’ve been my first clue that my approach might not be the best…

Now, the article didn’t go into great detail on how or why exercise-first is supposed to work (and the reasons they did provide seemed a little weak to me). And that made me a little skeptic-face, causing me to look further into the issue.

Science to the rescue!

Thankfully, there has been a study that looked at precisely this issue. So here’s the real deal:

Both of us were wrong. BUT. The psychologist was less wrong than I was. (Haha, do you like how I phrased that? It’s a bit easier to swallow than saying “I was most wrong of all!” And yet I was.)

The Stanford University School of Medicine did a study that looked at the building of healthy habits (specifically, adding exercise to an already-busy lifestyle and modifying the participants’ diets to be healthier) over the course of an entire year. They had one group implement the dietary changes first, another implement the exercise ones, a third group that was a control group (they made neither changes), and a fourth group that – get this – implemented both at the same time.

The results were counterintuitive to me at first. I tend to think that trying to change too many things at once is less sustainable in the long term. Well, I guess it turns out that 2 types of changes (diet and exercise) does not qualify as “too many”! Because the group that changed both their diet and exercise at the same time were the most successful at maintaining those new habits.

And the group that added exercise in before modifying their diet were second-most successful.

The diet-first group were able to make the dietary changes, but really struggled on the exercise side of things (sound familiar, Ashleigh?!?). As one of the researchers pointed out:

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.

Now that makes a lot of sense.

Commence the application of this new knowledge!

As I go through this rocky spot in my journey, sitting here at over 300 pounds and prediabetic, I really really want to get this figured out. I recognize that I will continue to make mistakes along the way, but the more I can hone my habit-building skills with evidence-based knowledge, I think the greater the likelihood that I’ll eventually see success.

Next week I’ll be posting my first monthly update on my healthy journey plans and goals (I’ll be switching from the previous weekly format). As I approach that point where I sit down for the first time in months and try to figure out how to proceed, I am beyond grateful that this study happened and was published.

Join the conversation in the comments section below!

Did the study’s results surprise you, or are they pretty much what you expected? If  you have built a healthier lifestyle for yourself than you used to have, which approach did you use to changing your habits? If you’re a health or fitness professional, which approach do you typically recommend to your clients? 

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