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Kicking 2 unhealthy habits may bring big results, study says

eating healthy woman

Among the deluge of advice on how to be healthier, a new study suggests changing just two particular habits would go a long way toward helping people shape up: Get off the couch, and eat more fruits and vegetables.

People in the study who were told to follow those two bits of advice not only did so but changed other unhealthy habits in the process. Meanwhile, those in the study who were working toward other combinations of goals, such as exercising more and eating less fat, fared less well overall.

"Americans have all these unhealthy behaviors that put them at high risk for heart diseaseand cancer, but it is hard for them and their doctors to know where to begin to change those unhealthy habits," said lead study author Bonnie Spring, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "This approach simplifies it."

In the study, researchers asked participants to take part in a various combinations of healthy activities. The researchers divided the study's 204 participants into four groups, and each group was given two activities to work on, such as "exercise more and eat more fruits and vegetables" or "be less sedentary and eat less fat."

The group that was told to spend less time being sedentary and to eat more fruits and veggies increased the amount of fruits and vegetables they ate from one daily serving to almost three, on average, and they cut the amount of free time they spent being sedentary by more than 90 minutes per day. That group also saw the greatest overall gains.

For example, the group that was told to "get more exercise and eat less fat" tended to exercise more over time, and decreased their percentage of daily calories that came from fat, from 11.4 to 9.1 percent. But this group experienced very little decrease in sedentary time, and almost no increase in fruit and veggie consumption.

On the other hand, the group that was told to "be less sedentary and eat more fruits and vegetables" saw an increase in their exercise that was comparable with groups asked to "exercise more," as well as a similar drop in fat consumption — even though they weren’t asked to limit fat.

Researchers concluded that focusing on cutting sedentary time and adding more fruits and veggies ended up also limiting fatty food intake, which often occurs during the hours spent in front of the television.

The researchers noted that 86 percent of all study participants said they tried to maintain their lifestyle changes even after the study ended.

"We found people can make very large changes in a very short amount of time and maintain them pretty darn well," Spring said. "It's a lot more feasible than we thought."

The study had limitations — for example, only a quarter of the participants were male, and the researchers relied on self-reported data on what participants were eating, and about their activities. Additionally, the people were paid to be in the study.

The study was published Monday (May 28) in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

Pass it on: Aiming to eat more fruits and veggies and spend less time on the couch may be two of the easiest ways to start a healthier lifestyle.