Researchers at the Northwestern University are investigating new methods to rehabilitate people with lousy health habits.
The study was designed by Bonnie Spring, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, to make change as easy as possible.
Spring knows it's difficult for someone with a raft of unhealthy habits to transform an entire lifestyle. So she wants people to just change two unhealthy behaviors to see if the others will tag along. Her method is based on the Behavioral Economics Theory used by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman.
She's also helping fat-food-loving couch dwellers flip their lifestyles with an arsenal of high-tech tools including a specially programmed Palm Pilot to monitor eating and exercise; virtual visits with a personal coach and an accelerometer which straps around the waist to record the intensity of their movements.
Participants are assigned to eat more veggies and fruits or cut down on saturated fat; and cut back on "screen" time or increase exercise.
"We're trying to figure out which two behavior changes give you the maximum healthy bang for your buck on all unhealthy behaviors that we're trying to modify," Spring said.
"The new behaviors come along for the ride in one of two ways -- a complementary behavior or a substitute behavior. If watching TV means you also snack when you watch, then eating and snacking are complementary behaviors for you. If I can get you to cut down on your TV, you'll probably automatically cut down on your snacking. I make your life simpler by just asking you to change one. The complementary behavior is a bonus that comes along for the ride," she added.
For the study, Spring recruited a participant, Joy Hesemann and assigned her the methods for four-months. Her basic aim was to slash most saturated fat from her diet and break a sweat for an hour a day. She also got a crash course on healthier eating and strategies to inject more physical activity into her day such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
She recorded every bite of food and minute of exercise in the ever-present Palm Pilot, which had software to monitor her daily progress. With each entry, an image of a thermometer with a rising "temperature" showed her intake of saturated fat so far that day (she was allowed 20 grams) and her minutes of exercise.
As with all participants, Hesemann's recordings in the Palm Pilot and contact with the personal coach gradually tapered off over the four-month period of the study. This latter period is when it gets interesting for Spring. She's waiting to see who falls off the wagon.
"It's really hard to maintain a new healthier lifestyle. At first it's novel and exciting and then the novelty wears off. You tend to revert back to the old habits. There's kind of an inertia that pulls you back," Spring said.
Spring is anxious to see which two behavior changes best helped people maintain their healthier habits. But she won't know the results until the study ends in 2008.