Should you do a health overhaul?
When looking at ways to improve our health, we often think it’s best to make only one or two changes at a time.
If we want to lose weight, for instance, we might start by doing more incidental exercise. Then, we might cut out soft drinks and later reduce our alcohol intake.
This ‘gently, gently’ approach is often employed in research, too – with good reason. After all, if only one variable is changed in a study, it’s easier to attribute results to that single change.
But new research, published in March this year in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, took a different approach.
The researchers wanted to see how adaptable (or plastic) our brains are, and how much we can alter our health outcomes by addressing multiple issues simultaneously.
The study involved 31 college students; 16 in the control group, 15 in the active group. The active group engaged in an intensive six-week program, addressing exercise, nutrition, sleep, mindfulness, compassion and relationships.
And it really was intensive: each day included five hours of intervention.
Alcohol was limited to no more than one drink a day, diet was primarily ‘whole foods’ (along with restriction of non-produce carbohydrates after exercise), and participants were asked to adhere to a regular sleep schedule, sleeping for 8-10 hours a night.
At the end of the six-week program, the control group showed no significant changes on any measure.
Meanwhile, the intervention group showed improvements across their physiology, cognition and mood in more than a dozen different outcomes.
These included better muscle endurance and flexibility along with reduced triglyceride levels, improved memory capacity, mood, better life satisfaction and reduced stress. (MRI brain scans assessed areas of the brain associated with a variety of cognitive functions.)
The results didn’t just show improvements across many domains; they were also significant.
“Many of these effects were very large; larger than you tend to find in studies that focus on changing only one thing,” said lead author of the paper and director of research at University of California Santa Barbara’s Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential, Michael Mrazek.
When follow up occurred six-weeks after the study ended, even Mrazek admitted he was “surprised” that – without any contact or support – participants maintained their results.
Making multiple changes at the one time (or engaging in a ‘health overhaul’) can be beneficial for many reasons, says Mrazek.
Firstly, certain behaviours help reinforce each other. For instance, he says, it’s easier to drink less coffee when you’re getting more sleep.
Also, positive changes beget more of the same, creating what Mrazek refers to as an “upward spiral” where one success helps support the next.
Another bonus is the “rapid, dramatic” changes you’re likely to see as a result of addressing multiple issues at once, says Clinical Psychologist Dr Lara Winten.
For this reason, she says this approach is best suited for those who embrace an “all or nothing” style of thinking.
But she has reservations about simulating the methods used in this study.
She says most people simply don’t have the time, nor resources, to dedicate to achieving – let alone maintaining – such goals.
But her main concern lies in the “very small” size of the group studied. “I would hesitate to make any generalisable recommendations on the back of it.”
While further research is needed to explore health overhauls, this study demonstrates that our brains – and bodies – are capable of making many simultaneous changes. And those changes can have positive repercussions across multiple areas of our lives.
Said Mrazek: “I hope this research raises a sense of possibility, and maybe even sense of expectation, about what is possible for someone who wants to improve his or her life.”
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