Whatever happened to the guy who quit drinking coffee, started doing yoga every day, changed his diet and went to bed earlier every night? He…succeeded. Prevailing wisdom would be that he was making too many changes at once, and that in order to make lasting changes, he should have taken it one step at a time. But new research from the University of California at Santa Barbara suggests that people are perfectly capable of tackling multiple life issues at once. The study, published this week in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, brings the welcome news that we have seriously underestimated our ability to change our lives for the better.
The study involved 31 college students; 15 were put into a lifestyle intervention group and 16 remained as a control group. Those in the intervention group were in a health boot camp of sorts: 2.5 hours a day of yoga and Pilates, an hour of mindfulness practice, and 1.5 hours of a lecture on topics of wellness. They were also limited to one alcoholic drink per day, ate a diet of mostly whole foods, and slept 8 to 10 hours a day. Throughout the study, their fitness, cholesterol, memory capacity and other factors were tested, and their brains were examined via MRIs.
Participants who were lucky enough to be in that intervention group all showed dramatic improvements in more than a dozen different outcomes, including strength, endurance, flexibility, working memory, standardized test performance, focus, mood, self-esteem, mindfulness and life satisfaction. Michael Mrazek, the director of research at UCSB’s Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential and the lead author of the study, says, “Part of what distinguishes this work is finding such broad improvements across so many different domains, particularly given that the effect sizes were so large,” Mrazek wrote. “Many of these effects were very large — larger than you tend to find in studies that focus on changing only one thing.”
Even after the study concluded, the participants continued to show improvement in all areas of their health, cognitive and wellbeing functions, maintaining significant improvements at a six-week follow up. Understanding how all these changes were possible will require future research, according to UCSB, but Mrazek suspects that a comprehensive approach allows each area of improvement to reinforce the others. “Recent research suggests its often more effective to make two or more changes simultaneously, especially when those changes reinforce one another. It’s easier to drink less coffee if at the same time you get more sleep. Our intervention extended this logic by helping people make progress in many ways, which can create an upward spiral where one success supports the next,” he said.
If you want to improve your own life, try this new approach and support one positive change with another, or with multiple positive changes. You’re capable of more than you thought!
Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!