by Beth Shepard   Beth's profile on LinkedIn

Produce for well-being and USDA guidelines.

Troy decides he’s had enough; he’s ready to get fit, stop smoking, and eat right… now. He’d like your advice on the best way to tackle these changes. Should he focus on 1 at a time, or overhaul his lifestyle?

Traditionally, wellness professionals have favored the 1-step-at-a-time approach; we don’t want to overwhelm anyone. But a small University of California, Santa Barbara, study demonstrates that healthy young adults can successfully change several lifestyle behaviors at the same time.[i]

The Plastic Brain

The intervention placed college students in an intensive, 5 hours/day lifestyle change program, 5 days/week for 6 weeks. They participated in exercises classes, mindfulness activities, and learning groups on other aspects of health living — nutrition, compassion, and relationships, for example. In addition, they were instructed to do 2 high-intensity interval training workouts each week on their own, perform random acts of kindness daily, and record sleep duration, alcohol consumption, and weekend eating habits.

Results showed big improvements in physical health, cognitive ability, and emotional well-being compared to controls; remarkably, subjects continued to improve 6 weeks after the intervention ended. MRI brain imaging found increased connectivity between areas of the brain involved in bodily and emotional awareness and sensation as well as those that play a role in cognitive processes. These changes positively linked with the subjects’ increased capacity for mindfulness, reading comprehension, and working memory capacity.

More studies are needed to pinpoint the specific reasons why this works, but according to Michael Mrazek, research director at UCSB’s Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential, this approach “…can create an upward spiral where one success supports the next.”

More Evidence

These findings are consistent with the growing body of evidence around the power of coaction, as described by Johnson and Paiva, et al — where success in 1 area often leads to success in others at the same time.[ii] Workplace wellness leaders frequently see examples of this, with employees beginning an exercise program and finding it easier to choose a bean burrito over a Whopper® or quitting tobacco and taking up walking for fitness and stress reduction. A review by Prochaska found significant benefits from treating tobacco and alcohol or drug abuse together; multiple behavior change programs for cancer prevention also show promise.[iii]

Workplace wellness leaders and cardiac rehabilitation staff frequently see examples of coaction, with participants starting an exercise program and finding it easier to make smart eating choices at the same time. As a result, mood and confidence levels rise, and people feel less stressed. With the right program design and support, these behaviors reinforce each other.

What to Do

Whether or not these studies are widely applicable to the working population remains to be seen. In the meantime, give your participants the benefit of the latest findings:

  • Inspire people to expect more of themselves by highlighting and explaining these research nuggets; give them examples of how to apply findings to their own behavior change efforts.
  • Offer team wellness challenges that involve 3 behaviors addressing more than 1 aspect of well-being; increasing daily steps + produce servings + acts of kindness, for example, boosts mind, body, and social well-being.
  • Throw down a challenge. Instead of telling participants to tiptoe around with baby steps, encourage them to act boldly and confidently, taking dynamic steps toward mighty goals.

Bottom line? Barring safety contraindications, participants like Troy, who are motivated to change multiple behaviors, should go for it.

For more research and practical tips on behavior change, read Small Steps or Giant Leaps — What Works Best for Health Behavior Change?.

[ii]Johnson S, Paiva A, Mauriello L, Prochaska J, Redding C, Velicer W. Coaction in Multiple Behavior Change Interventions: Consistency Across Multiple Studies on Weight Management and Obesity Prevention, Health Psychology, May 2014, 33(5):475-80. doi: 10.1037/a0034215, Epub 2013 

[iii]Prochaska J. A Review of Multiple Health Behavior Change Interventions
for Primary Prevention
, published online before print January 7, 2011, doi: 10.1177/1559827610391883; American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, May/June 2011, Vol. 5 No. 3 208-221

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