Let’s say you’ve decided to make some changes in your life. You’re out of shape, your mind wanders, your self-esteem is wavering, and you have no idea what you just read. So you decide to focus on one thing — losing weight, maybe — and tackle the other issues later. You don’t want to take on too much at once, right?
A new paper by researchers at UC Santa Barbara, however, suggests you’re selling yourself short. “Pushing the Limits: Cognitive, Affective & Neural Plasticity Revealed by an Intensive Multifaceted Intervention,” published this week in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, strongly suggests that we have seriously underestimated our ability to change our lives for the better.
Michael Mrazek, director of research at UCSB’s Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential and lead author of the paper, said the six-week study from which the paper is drawn demonstrates that simultaneous, significant improvement across a broad range of mental and physical functions is possible. Participants in the intervention 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.
“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 explained. Large effect sizes signify that the results were not only statistically significant but also indicative of substantial changes. “Many of these effects were very large — larger than you tend to find in studies that focus on changing only one thing.”
In the study, 31 college students were recruited for an intensive lifestyle change program; 15 participated in the intervention and 16 were in the waitlist control group. Those in the intervention put in five hours a day each weekday for six weeks. They did 2.5 hours of physical exercise (including yoga and Pilates), one hour of mindfulness practice and 1.5 hours of lecture or discussion on topics such as sleep, nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, compassion, relationships or well being. The were advised to limit alcohol consumption to one drink a day, eat a diet of mostly whole foods and sleep 8-10 hours a day.
Throughout the study, the participants were tested on a variety of factors, including physical fitness, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, working memory capacity, reading comprehension and more. They also underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of their brains to examine areas known to be associated with a range of cognitive functions.