HEALTHY LIVING

One Simple Trick To Make Your Health Goals Stick

02/06/2015 08:22 am ET | Updated Feb 06, 2015
Alistair Berg via Getty Images

How are your New Year's resolutions going?

If you're like most people, those goals you set at the beginning of 2015 are already starting to fall by the wayside. But if you want to jumpstart your resolutions and keep them going strong, don't beat yourself up. New research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that pairing goals with positive self-affirmations could be key to helping you stick to your guns.

Here's how the experiment went down. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and University of California, Los Angeles recruited 67 sedentary, generally overweight but healthy adults and told them they were participants in a study on "daily activities" that would simply record their movements with an accelerometer.

In reality, they were part of a randomized, controlled trial on whether positive self-affirmations could better help them receive and apply health advice. To establish a baseline of activity level, everyone was fitted with a waterproof wrist accelerometer. Researchers also presented participants with a list of eight values (creativity, friends and family, humor, independence, money, politics, religion and spontaneity) and asked them to rank the values from most to least important.

One week later, they returned to the labs to have their brains scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they were presented with a series of 50 health messages about a sedentary lifestyle and overweight body mass index. But for half of the participants, the experimental "affirmation" group, those health messages were buttressed with self-affirmations that aligned with the highest personal values they had identified the week prior. The control group, on the other hand, received the health messages along with neutral prompts or prompts that aligned with their lowest-ranked personal values.

The researchers noticed that the brains of people in the affirmation group lit up more in the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex (VMPFC), a region of the brain that's activated when people think about themselves and their values.

After the brain imaging was over, both groups continued to receive daily health text messages about. But the affirmation group received a self-affirmation prompt as well, like, "Think about a time you used your humor to cheer someone up." The control group, on the other hand, received their health messages with a neutral prompt, like, "Think of a situation when you might check the weather."

Before the intervention, the participants were sedentary for an average of 50.6 percent of their waking time. After receiving the health text messages for one month, the accelerometer data showed that the participants receiving the self-affirmation prompts had significantly increased their activity compared to the control group. And, in keeping with past research that shows activation in the VMPFC region is a better predictor of health behavior change than even a person's own intentions, participants whose brains showed the most activity there were able to increase their activity more than others in the study.

"Our findings highlight that something as simple as reflecting on core values can fundamentally change the way our brains respond to the kinds of messages we encounter every day," said lead researcher Emily Falk, director of the Communication Neuroscience Laboratory at University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication in a statement. "Over time, that makes the potential impact huge."

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