You know you should exercise and eat healthfully to keep your weight in check. The thing is, research suggests that when people devote time to one healthy habit, they spend less time on the other. So which is more important if you’re worried about your waistline: your workout or your diet?
Turns out, people who think that diet is the most important factor in weight control tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who believe that exercise is the key, according to six new studies published in the journal Psychological Science.
In the studies, researchers asked a total of more than 1,200 people in the U.S., Canada, China, France, and South Korea about the main factor that makes people overweight. They also took participants’ height and weight measurements to calculate their BMIs. Interestingly, those who said it’s most important to stay active to prevent obesity had higher BMIs than the people who said eating right is the key to weight control.
As you might expect, people’s weight-control theories impacted their food choices. In two studies, when researchers offered participants unlimited chocolate, the people who said they think staying active is key to maintaining a healthy weight ate more.
“Our beliefs guide our actions,” says study co-author Brent McFerran, PhD, an assistant professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Think about it: If you think exercise is the key to weight control, you might move more and focus less on what you eat. While exercise can definitely support weight loss—and make you feel awesome, among other benefits—people tend to overestimate the amount of calories they burn while working out and compensate for the extra activity by eating more, says McFerran.
On the flip side, if you believe that eating a healthy diet is the best way to maintain your weight, you might worry less about exercise—but closely watch what you eat. And that’s smart, especially because most people grossly underestimate the amount of calories they consume, says McFerran.
The problem: Many people think they can work off extra pounds—but there’s a ton of scientific evidence to support the fact that changing your diet is a more effective way to drop weight, says McFerran. “If we eat a 3000-calorie lunch, nearly no one has enough free time in the rest of the day to exercise it off,” he says.
Luckily, McFerran’s best advice for weight control doesn’t take much time: Steer clear of foods that are high in calories, and trade large plates and bowls for smaller ones to ensure you fill them with more restrained portions.
That said, you should probably hold onto your gym membership, too. Although it’s tough to slim down with exercise alone, staying active does help with weight control—and it’s absolutely crucial for your health, says Keri Glassman, RD, a Women’s Health weight loss expert. Not only does exercise produce endorphins that increase your metabolic rate and motivate you to eat better—it also supports heart health, strengthens your bones, helps you sleep, decreases stress, and boosts mental health. All awesome reasons to hit the gym when you can!
For the animal study, Australian researchers divided mice into three groups. The first ate a normal diet, the second a high-fat diet, and the third a high-fat diet that contained a large amount of chlorogenic acid (CGA), a type of antioxidant found in coffee. Over the span of 12 weeks, the critters that ate the high-fat diet with CGA stored more fat and experienced increased glucose sensitivity and insulin resistance, precursors to type 2 diabetes, compared to the mice who ate a high-fat diet without the coffee compound. The results came as a surprise to researchers.
“Our hypothesis was that the coffee compound would reduce weight gain and improve insulin sensitivity,” says study co-author Kevin D. Croft, PhD, of The University of Western Australia School of Medicine and Pharmacology. ”Clearly this is not the case.”
Don’t break things off with Joe just yet, though. The mice in the study consumed doses of CGA equivalent to drinking five or six cups of coffee per day, says Croft. Previous research has shown that consuming CGA in moderation can reduce blood pressure, increase insulin resistance, and—here’s the kicker—even prevent weight gain. While researchers are unsure why the opposite is true at high doses, they believe that excessive CGA intake may hinder the body’s ability to process and use fat.
To reap coffee’s health benefits without increasing your poundage, limit yourself to three or four cups of coffee a day, says Croft. Keep in mind, though, that a cup is eight ounces. Suck down a Trenta from Starbucks, and you’ve already hit your max for the day.
If you can part with burgers and meat sauce, slimming down should be a cinch: Replacing red meat with white-button mushrooms can help you lose weight and keep it off, according to a new study conducted at the Weight Management Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Participants who ate one cup of mushrooms in place of meat every day for a year consumed an average of 123 fewer calories and 4.25 fewer grams of fat per day. They also lost more weight (an average of seven pounds) and saw a larger drop in body mass index, waist circumference, and total percent body fat compared to participants who didn’t change their diets at all.
Why? Mushrooms are super low-cal—there are just 44 in each cup—especially compared to lean ground meat, which has nearly six times as many calories per volume. But previous research has shown that mushrooms are just as satiating as meat, so you consume way fewer calories without feeling deprived.
In most recipes that call for ground beef—like sauce, chili, or burgers—you can swap in one and a half pounds of chopped, sautéed mushrooms for every pound of ground beef, says JoAnn Brader, manager of the Rodale Test Kitchen, which tests and develops recipes for Women’s Health.
Another option? Fill up on one of these tasty mushroom recipes. You won’t even miss the meat:
Trying to lose weight? Money can be a serious motivator: People who receive financial incentives are more likely to stick to weight-loss programs and tend to drop more pounds than people who try to slim down without them, according to a new Mayo Clinic study.
The study followed 100 people between the ages of 18 to 63 over a one-year period. All of the participants had body mass indexes of 30 or higher, which is considered obese. They were given a goal of losing 4 pounds per month. Each participant was assigned to one of four different groups: two with financial incentives and two without.
Participants who met their monthly target goal got $ 20 each month, while those who didn’t had to cough up $ 20 that went into a pooled account. Participants in the incentive groups who completed the program were also entered into a lottery to win the pooled money.
Even though $ 20 a month isn’t a big payout, the groups’ results were drastically different. Sixty-two percent of the cash incentive groups completed the study, while just 26 percent of the other groups did. Those in the cash-driven groups also lost 9.08 pounds on average, compared to the other groups’ average weight loss of 2.34 pounds.
It wasn’t just participants getting money who were more likely to stick with the routine, either; those who paid cash penalties were also more likely to finish the program than those who received no financial incentive, according to the study.
“It’s human nature that we tend to make choices that provide immediate gratification,” says Steven Driver, MD, an internal medicine resident at the Mayo Clinic. “Financial incentives help by counteracting immediate rewards and promoting healthy behavior changes that we wish we would do more often.”
How can you use this news in your own life? Download GymPact, a free app that gives cash rewards for working out. You set how many days a week you’ll hit the gym and choose what you’re willing to pay if you don’t follow through (for example, you might sign up for five days a week, with $ 5 on the line each day). Every week, the money paid by non-exercisers who missed their workouts is divided and paid out to those who met their goals. You can’t cheat, either: GymPact keeps you honest by making you check into your gym via your smartphone each time you go.
For another option, visit HealthyWage, a website that gives you monetary rewards for your weight loss. You can join the site’s 10 Percent Challenge for a fee of $ 150, and if you lose at least 10 percent of your body weight over a six-month period, you’ll walk away with $ 300. Talk about a win-win!
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When it’s too wet or snowy to wear sneakers outdoors, it can feel too wet and snowy to work out. Case in point: A new poll conducted by Gallup-Healthways found that after Hurricane Sandy, people living on the east coast were twice as likely to skip exercise than people in less affected parts of the country. Adults in the tri-state area were also up to 13 percent less likely to work out regularly after the hurricane, and 7 percent less likely to eat healthfully.
Of course, power outages, serious stress, and higher priorities like cleanup efforts might have skewed the results for good reason. But the truth is, most people tend to exercise less in the winter, anyway. And it makes sense: when it’s cold and dark outside, most people prefer to curl up under covers.
“Weather is such a socially acceptable excuse, we grab it and run—or rather, sit on the couch,” says life coach Laurie Gerber, president of Handel Group Life Coaching. But making excuses and skipping workouts won’t actually make you feel better. And it’ll definitely make you feel worse in the springtime, when it’s harder to hide the evidence of winter laziness: extra pounds.
So, save the excuses for when you’re late for work, and motivate yourself to move in any weather with these tips:
Set a consequence
One reason people aren’t as committed to working out in the winter: Because the consequences (a few extra pounds) are easy enough to hide under bulky sweaters and coats. To prevent a rude awakening this spring, set consequences for skipped gym sessions that you’ll notice now. For instance, if you don’t work out three times this week, commit to sending a Jackson to your least favorite politician. Or take a 2-minute cold shower. Or sleep without a pillow. And tell your housemates to hold you to your word. “This way, your brain will work for you with creative solutions to the weather, rather than convincing you that exercising is unreasonable,” says Gerber.
Save special workouts for awful weather
“When the weather sucks and you can’t imagine leaving the house—don’t,” says fitness expert Dasha Libin, MS, NASM-PES, creator of Kettlebell Kickboxing. Her solution: pop in a workout DVD. Start a collection of yoga, dance, and niche-fitness DVDs before you’re snowed or rained in, but don’t try them. When the next storm hits, you’ll actually be excited to tear off the plastic and try something new.
Try a new winter workout
Snowboarding, skiing, and ice-skating are made for winter, and are also fantastic cardio workouts. Plus, cold conditions boost your metabolic rate to help you burn slightly more calories, according to a 2011 University of Utah study. Plan some trips that you’re excited about, even if it’s just to the local ice skating rink.
Meet your fitness buddy online
There’s no question: a workout wife is a good thing to have. After all, it’s hard to skip a workout when your friend is waiting for you at the gym. That said, you’ll really disappoint her if you risk your life to meet up in severe weather. Instead, use Skype or Facetime to sweat it out together: just pick an at-home workout here, and share the link with your friend. Then turn on the camera, and perform the moves in a place that’s safe, dry, and well lit (so you can see each other).
Give in to your guilty pleasure…with a commercial-break combo
Go ahead–curl up and watch that Housewives, Smash, or Mindy Project marathon. During each commercial break, though, set out to break a sweat with Libin’s four-move workout: do 10 push ups, 10 squat jumps, 30 alternating rear lunges, and finish with a plank hold until the show returns.
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Researchers looked at 96 obese men and women over a period of six months. In the main trial, they were divided into two groups: those who received informational podcasts about weight loss, and those who received the podcasts plus mobile apps for Twitter and tracking their nutrition and exercise along with other group members. After six months, both groups saw a 2.7 percent reduction in weight. However, when researchers looked specifically within the mobile group to examine how Twitter may have helped participants battle the bulge, they saw that every 10 posts to the social-media site resulted in a -0.5 percent weight loss.
Or, to put it simply: “Those who were engaged with Twitter lost more weight,” says lead researcher Brie Turner-McGrievy, Ph.D. Which makes sense, if you think about it from a social perspective. A group-based approach to weight loss can be helpful—the group provides a support network, and also helps keep everyone a bit more honest and motivated. “We were interested in finding a way to provide that group social support online during our intervention,” Turner-McGrievy says. “We chose Twitter because we wanted people to feel free to post multiple, brief messages each day, and have the choice to be anonymous.”
You can try using an online social network to keep you accountable for your health goals, too—no need to be a social media guru. Turner-McGrievy suggests the following:
Look up others tracking their own fitness journeys, and follow along. “I suggest first to search for weight loss bloggers online who also have a Twitter account,” says Turner-McGrievy. “Start by following them and then see who their users are. Follow the users you find who are similar to you.”
Don’t just watch others talk health; dive in. “Start tweeting!” Turner-McGrievy says. “Twitter is an amazing way to connect with other people who are also attempting to start an exercise, healthy-eating and weight-loss program.” Interaction is key. You want to feel like you’re in it together with other users, not like you’re alone on an island.
Update Your Status
No need to worry about making tweets witty or particularly newsworthy, Turner-McGrievy insists. “The posts to Twitter were mostly in the form of status updates, so just telling people that you went to the gym or stuck to your calorie goals for the day was helpful,” she says. “The nice thing about Twitter is it’s expected that you will post multiple times per day, and you can be fairly anonymous… Our study participants liked having the ability to be anonymous and not have to worry about a friend knowing they were trying to lose weight.”
While Twitter’s anonymity is certainly great if you want it, Facebook may also work, especially if you can join a weight-loss group or have real-life friends getting fit along with you. “In a current weight loss trial we are conducting among women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, we are using private Facebook groups and have had good success with those,” Turner-McGrievy says.
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