Weekly challenge: Cut back on TV time to improve your diet

Even though I eat well and exercise regularly, I have a mile-long list of things I’d like to do to improve my health, such as signing up for a yoga class, getting to sleep earlier, avoiding the leftover cheesecake in my fridge, and grabbing lunch when I feel those first hunger pangs rather than a bag of pretzels to tide me over. As it turns out, I’d be better off focusing on just two of these things at a time to, a. feel less overwhelmed (which is also on my list), and b. make a greater number of changes overall.

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A study published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine indicates that adopting two healthful changes, such as eating more fruits and vegetables and reducing time spent sitting during leisure activities, could have a domino effect, leading to healthful changes in other areas of your life, such as the amount of time you spend exercising or how much saturated fat you eat.

In the study, 200 volunteers, who were paid for their participation, were randomly assigned to take on two of the lifestyle approaches mentioned in the previous paragraph to see whether those two changes would lead to other healthful habits.

Participants in the study who were assigned to focus on eating five fruits and vegetables a day and reducing their leisure couch-potato time had the best results, according to the study by researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and elsewhere. Specifically, they increased their daily produce intake from about one serving a day to more than five, while cutting their leisure time from 3.5 hours a day to less than 1.5 hours. They also decreased their saturated fat intake from 12 percent of daily total calories to 9.5 percent of calories consumed — even though it wasn’t on their agenda. And they increased their time spent on exercise by about 25 minutes a week over 10 weeks, nearly as much as the group that was assigned to exercise.

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“There was something about increasing fruits and vegetables that made them feel like they were capable of any of these changes,’’ said lead author Bonnie Spring in a statement. “It really enhanced their confidence.’’

Also, clear from the study, cutting back on TV time — with its nonstop commercials for junk food — has a particularly strong effect on improving health habits, thanks to what the researchers call “behavior bundling.’’ Sitting and watching TV means you’re not exercising and more likely to be tempted to snack (thanks to those commercials) and eat mindlessly to the bottom of the bag.

This week’s challenge? Cut back on TV time and eat more fruits and vegetables if you’re not eating enough and see whether you make other health improvements at the same time. If you’re already good about getting in your daily quota of produce and limiting TV time, try to take on two other health changes to see where they lead.

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