About six months ago many of us made a New Year’s resolution to improve our health—like eating better or getting more exercise. So, how’s that coming?
With so many fad diets, workout plans and often conflicting information, making positive lifestyle changes can be overwhelming and confusing. Where do you start?
It appears that some researchers at Northwestern University may have hit on the answer. They found that two simple changes in health behavior spurred big and lasting results: cutting time spent watching TV or a computer screen and eating more fruits and vegetables.
The goal of the study was to find the best way to help people overcome common unhealthy behaviors: eating too much saturated fat and not enough fruits and vegetable diet and sedentary leisure time versus being physically active.
These behaviors are associated with many of the leading causes of death in this country: heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
As you might expect, too much sedentary leisure time (also known as couch surfing) often goes hand in hand…or, rather hand to mouth with too much junk food. Think Super Bowl Sunday--platters of buffalo wings, pizza, hotdogs and potato chips washed down with beer and sodas.
By the end of the study, the participants cut their couch surfing time by from an average of 219 minutes per day to 89 minutes and reduce saturated fat from 12 to 9.5 % of calorie consumption, for the vast majority, these lifestyle improvements stuck! And isn’t that the ultimate test of any health plan?
How They Did It
The researchers assigned 204 adult patients between the ages of 21 to 60 with elevated saturated fat and low fruit and vegetable intake into one of four treatment groups:
- Increased fruit and vegetable intake and exercise
- Decreased fat intake and sedentary leisure time
- Decreased fat intake and an increase in physical activity (otherwise known as traditional dieting)
- Increased fruit/vegetable intake and decreased sedentary leisure time. (best results overall)
During the three-week study period, participants were told they would receive $175 for meeting goals. When that period ended, they were told that they no longer had to follow the health plan to be paid. Instead they were asked to submit data three days a month for six months and received $30-$60 per month.
The study authors said they were amazed with the results. “We thought they’d do it while we were paying them, but the minute we stopped they’d go back to their bad habits. But they continued to maintain a large improvement in their health behaviors,” said Bonnie Spring, lead author of the study.
Ninety-eight percent of the test subjects opted to continue with the second phase of the study. Out of 185 people who continued, 86.5 % of participants said once they made the change, they “definitely” or “somewhat” tried to maintain it.
They also noticed an interesting trend in the two groups that were instructed to eat more fruits and vegetables. “There was something about increasing fruits and vegetables that made them feel like they were capable of any of these changes, Spring said. “It really enhanced their confidence.”
It is also worth noting that those in the “traditional diet” group (decreased fat intake/increased exercise) were least effective in changing unhealthy habits. They were more likely to drop healthy habits through the second part of the experiment, especially when it came to increasing physical activity.
Archives of Internal Medicine