Getting healthy doesn’t mean having to overhaul your entire lifestyle. Just a couple of key behavioral tweaks can have a domino effect on your other health-related habits, with lasting benefits, a recent study reports.
Researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine looked at what it would take to get people to change their bad health habits, including consuming too much saturated fat, not eating enough fruits and vegetables, spending too much time being sedentary, and not getting adequate exercise.
What they found was that people didn’t have to attack all four problems at once. Rather, changing just two behaviors — namely reducing the amount of time they spent watching TV, and eating more fruits and veggies — had a ripple effect, leading to a healthier lifestyle overall.
“Just making two lifestyle changes has a big overall effect and people don’t get overwhelmed,” said lead author Bonnie Spring, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a statement. ”Americans have all these unhealthy behaviors that put them at high risk for heart disease and cancer, but it is hard for them and their doctors to know where to begin to change those unhealthy habits. This approach simplifies it.”
To determine which changes were most effective, the researchers recruited 204 adults aged 21 to 60, who engaged in all four unhealthy diet- and activity-related behaviors. The participants were divided into four treatment groups, each of which was assigned two lifestyle changes: increasing fruit and vegetable intake and increasing physical activity; decreasing fat consumption and reducing leisure time spent sedentary; decreasing fat intake and increasing physical activity; or increasing fruit and vegetable intake and decreasing sedentary leisure.
The participants engaged in their treatment regimens for three weeks and self-reported their progress by logging their data into a personal digital assistant every day and sending it to a coach who communicated with the participants as needed by telephone or email.
When people were asked to change just a couple of lifestyle behaviors, it became easier for them to attempt the others. The participants who ate more fruits and veggies and spent less time in front of the TV or computer also ended up consuming less saturated fat without really trying.
“Increasing fruits and vegetables was especially confidence-enhancing for folks,” says Spring. ”Once they’d achieved that change, they felt more confident about being able to make other diet and activity changes.”
The authors also say that cutting back on TV had an especially positive effect on the participants’ diet because of “behavior bundling” — when you’re sitting on the couch in front of the TV, you’re not exercising, you’re probably eating junk food mindlessly, and you’re watching commercials for other unhealthy foods.
“We think health behaviors are interrelated — they tend to complement or substitute for one another. So cutting down TV removed the cue that usually triggered people to do the paired behavior of snacking on junk while lounging on the couch,” says Spring.
Not all health changes have the same domino effect on other behaviors. The study found that people didn’t increase their physical activity unless the researchers targeted that behavior directly. Spring says her team will continue researching how exercise can be influenced by other health tweaks.
It’s important to note an important caveat: the participants in the study were paid $175 if they stuck with their treatment plans for the first three weeks, so they had an incentive to succeed. When the three weeks were up, the participants were asked to continue logging their data three days a month for six months to earned $30 to $80 per month — but they no longer had to follow the treatment plan to be paid.
The researchers say that people reported keeping up their lifestyle changes anyway. ”We thought they’d do it while we were paying them, but the minute we stopped they’d go back to their bad habits,” Spring said in the statement. “But they continued to maintain a large improvement in their health behaviors.”
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About 86% of participants said once they had made lifestyle changes, they tried to maintain them. The study didn’t track participants’ weight, but the findings suggest that small, low-budget behavioral tweaks could potentially lead to long-term changes that encourage better health and weight loss.
The study was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.