The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but what would happen if you took many steps… instead of just one? A new study published in March in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests that changing just one old habit at a time might be an outmoded way of thinking. For those of us whom embark on the journey toward bettering ourselves, it is often recommended that the path toward well-being should be approached by adopting one new habit at a time to create lasting change.
Scientific studies typically (though not always) hypothesize and test this by studying the cause and effect of one practice at a time (For example: How meditation helps treat chronic depression), because it is much more straightforward to analyze data and come to conclusions when just one new element is introduced to the equation.
But researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara wondered if this tried-and-true mentality—when put to the test is indeed effective—was slowing our progress overall. They decided to find out whether or not a complete lifestyle overhaul had a greater impact on health and well-being, and if in the end it was better to give up every bad habit at once, instead of tacking them piecemeal.
Researchers assembled 31 college students with flexible daily schedules, and put them through a series of physical, cognitive, and emotional tests. Before the experiment began, brain scans were conducted on each student. Next, they were divided into two groups: the first was a control group that continued their routines as usual, and the other group underwent a total lifestyle overhaul. For the next six weeks, the lifestyle overhaul group spent each morning stretching for an hour, followed by strength and resistance training, balancing exercises, and then an hour of mindfulness-based training which included stress reduction techniques like meditation. But that’s not all—in the afternoon, the group exercised again for another 90 minutes, and also completed endurance workouts twice a week. They received nutrition consulting and kept a daily journal of their exercise and diet, while also tracking their sleep cycles and mood levels.
At the end of the experiment the students were retested. It should be of no surprise that the control group did not change. However, the group that underwent the total lifestyle overhaul were substantially fitter, happier, and more productive. Their brainpower received a big boost; cognitive function, memory, and focus improved, and they had greater sense of self-confidence.
The New York Times WELL blog has more:
These improvements, especially on measures of mood and stress reduction, generally exceeded by a great deal what had been seen in many past experiments whose subjects altered only one behavior. The study’s authors suggest that one kind of change, like starting an exercise regimen, may amplify the effects of another, like taking up meditation. What’s more, the improvements persisted: According to Michael Mrazek, the director of research at the Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential at U.C.S.B. and the study’s lead author, another set of tests six weeks after the experiment’s end showed that the change-everything students still scored much higher than they originally had on measures of fitness, mood, thinking skills and well-being, even though none of them were still exercising or meditating as much as they did during the experiment.
This is all well and good but let’s be real—is a total lifestyle change really feasible for the average working adult? Maybe so! Profound results like these—in such a short period of time, no less—are quite encouraging. Sure, it may seem daunting if not impossible to change EVERYTHING all at once, but knowing that in just six weeks it’s possible to look, feel, and live better than ever before is some serious motivation. Of course there is nothing wrong with replacing one bad habit at a time with a healthy one, but why not try making two changes… or three… or four? Think of it as just a six-week commitment to see if it’s working and then reassess. When you look at it that way, goal-setting becomes a lot less ominous and a lot more doable in the long run.
Andrea Rice is a Senior Writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a freelance writer, editor, and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, SONIMA, mindbodygreen, AstroStyle, and other online publications. You can find her regular classes at shambhala yoga & dance center in Brooklyn, and connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and on her website.