Apples and television: Those are the two small things that researchers say could make a huge difference to your overall health, if you’re trying to make the same kinds of improvements that most Americans work at year in and year out. A new study from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that, for subjects trying to change bad habits like consuming too much saturated fat, not eating enough fruit and vegetables, being too sedentary, and not getting enough exercise, starting with a couple of small habits was actually more effective than trying to change it all. So they say start with an apple (and less television) a day.
Researchers found 204 adults (aged 21 to 60) who struggled with all four of the previously mentioned bad health habits. They were divided into four groups, each of which were tasked with adjusting just two lifestyle changes. (So one group ate more fruits and veggies and exercised more; another ate less fat and spent less time being sedentary; yet another ate less fat and exercised more; the last ate more fruit and veggies and spent less time being sedentary. For three weeks, the participants adjusted their behaviors accordingly and recorded their progress via a personal digital assistant, interacting with coaches for support as necessary.
Researchers measured subjects success by the habits they did and didn’t change (for once, the study didn’t focus on weigh–in fact, they didn’t track their weight at all). And for all participants, changing two habits led to success beyond just the ones they were directly focused on. Lead author Bonnie Spring explained:
Just making two lifestyle changes has a big overall effect and people don’t get overwhelmed. Americans have all these unhealthy behaviors that put them at high risk for heart disease and cancer, but it is hard for them and their doctors to know where to begin to change those unhealthy habits. This approach simplifies it.
But researchers found that eating more fruits and vegetables (an apple a day!), and spending less time doing sedentary activities (like watching TV) were particularly helpful. Researchers believe that eating more fruits and vegetables (a goal that’s within many peoples’ reach) gives people confidence to make other healthy changes in their diets. And watching less TV doesn’t just cut back on sedentary time; it also caused improvements in diet because of “behavior bundling,” according to Spring:
We think health behaviors are interrelated — they tend to complement or substitute for one another. So cutting down TV removed the cue that usually triggered people to do the paired behavior of snacking on junk while lounging on the couch.
Eating apples and watching less television may not cure every bad health habit (for example, the domino effect didn’t extend to increasing physical activity, which seems to require specific, targeted efforts), but for the study’s participants, they yielded big results in their overall health habits, and 86% reported trying to maintain the habits they established in the months after the study period was over. That’s great news; anyone who’s ever tried to kick-start a new diet or fitness routine knows how tough it can be to make over your routine, let alone stick with it.