Bad habits often come in clusters. You get into one bad habit [such as staying up late watching TV] and another one follows [that bag of fattening chips]. But the good news is that when you get rid of that one habit, the others disappear too.
Researchers from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that simply changing one bad habit has a domino effect on others. The study also found the most effective way to rehab a delinquent lifestyle requires two key behavior changes: cutting time spent in front of a TV or computer screen and eating more fruits and vegetables.
"Just making two lifestyle changes has a big overall effect and people don't get overwhelmed," said Bonnie Spring, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and lead author of the study published in Archives of Internal Medicine.
Most of us have unhealthy behaviours that increase our risk of heart disease and cancer. And changing these behaviors often seem overwhelming because they all appear too big and complicated. This approach simplifies matters, making a positive change easy. It empowers people to make big and lasting lifestyle changes within a short span.
Spring and colleagues set out to find the most effective way to spur people to change common bad health habits: eating too much saturated fat and not enough fruits and vegetables, spending too much sedentary leisure time and not getting enough physical activity.
They assigned 204 adult patients, ages 21 to 60 years old, with all those unhealthy habits into one of four treatments. The treatments were: increase fruit/vegetable intake and physical activity, decrease fat and sedentary leisure, decrease fat and increase physical activity, and increase fruit/vegetable intake and decrease sedentary leisure.
The participants were to follow the treatment for three weeks, during which they would be paid $175 if they reached their health goals. After that they had to simply send data three days a month for six months and received $30 to $80 per month.
"We said we hope you'll continue to keep up these healthy changes, but you no longer have to keep them up to be compensated," Spring said. The results over the next six months amazed Spring. "We thought they'd do it while we were paying them, but the minute we stopped they'd go back to their bad habits," she said. "But they continued to maintain a large improvement in their health behaviors."
"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."
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