CORVALLIS - A new Oregon State University study has found that diet and exercise behavior are closely linked among young adults, and suggests that men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 have completely different motivations for their respective exercise regimens.
Young men list fun and recreation as their top reasons for exercise, followed by stress reduction. Young women, on the other hand, say they exercise first for weight control, followed by fitness and health.
In both groups, persons who exercise regularly are more likely to seek a healthy diet, the researchers concluded.
"This is wonderful because both diet and exercise play a role in prevention of chronic illnesses of later adulthood, like cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis," said Connie Georgiou, an associate professor of nutrition and food management at OSU and principle investigator in the study.
"If you eat well and do not exercise, or if you work out and still eat fat-laden foods or have an inadequate supply of calcium, you are still risking a heart attack or a broken hip later in life," she added.
Findings from the study will be published in the upcoming issue of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition.
The study is one of the first major efforts to look at both diet and exercise across a broad spectrum of young adults - not just college students. The researchers hoped to find out whether young men and women who exercised had different dietary habits than those who didn't.
"It looks like the ones who are exercising are also eating better diets," Georgiou said. "Those who are health conscious carry it over into both diet and exercise. The real question is, how do we convince them to be health conscious?"
The researchers held focus group discussions in nine states and also surveyed a number of young adults to find out if their food choices were linked to their exercise habits. Fat content and the number of calories topped the list of health factors influencing food selection.
When it came to specifics, however, the answers began to differ.
"There are certain foods that everyone agrees are fattening, like ice cream," Georgiou said. "And there are certain foods that are non-fattening, say, broccoli. But in between are any number of foods that may be nutrient-rich, but are not necessarily low in fat - like macaroni and cheese."
Georgiou said the study uncovered some differences between a well-rounded diet and the perception of a healthy diet, particularly among women who exercise. Among other things, the study found:
-Young women who exercise view such staples as hamburger, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, and 2 percent milk as fattening, and many believe that this kind of milk is not good for their health.
-The exercising women were less likely to eat french fries, cheese products and salad dressing.
-Both male and female exercisers made healthier food choices, eating more fruits, whole grains, fortified cereals, green vegetables, beans, chicken and fish, and they consumed less fried food.
-Male exercisers tended to think that eggs weren't good for their health.
"The idea that milk may not be good for you is somewhat disturbing," Georgiou said. "Young adulthood is kind of the last chance to increase mineral density in the bone and it appears that some young women may be evaluating foods solely on fat or calorie content instead of on their overall nutritional value.
"We don't necessarily need a campaign to promote 2 percent milk," she added, "but we may need to increase awareness of low-fat, low-calorie sources of calcium."
Georgiou said the study is important because it suggests health educators may need to fine tune their messages in reaching young adults. The linking of exercise and diet, and the difference in motivation between men and women, isn't adequately addressed in some health and fitness promotions, she pointed out.
The study's target audience of young adults is particularly important, she added.
"These people are newly independent and they are developing habits which they may carry for their entire lifetime," Georgiou said. "Yet they are still young enough to be helped."