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Make Healthy Changes Stick

Understanding what matters most to you can power your health transformation


by Sarah Mahoney

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Change—true, genuine, lasting change—is extremely difficult. We all know we should eat better, move more, and give up vices that range from smoking to binge-watching Netflix. But actually doing so? That takes lots of effort, and the patience and persistence to overcome many setbacks.

Intriguing new research from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan has found that a simple tool—self-affirmations linked to a person’s core values—can play a powerful role in making these changes stick.

See also: How to Make Healthy Habits Stick

Self-affirmations—tiny pep talks you give yourself over and over—have been proven to improve outcomes in everything from academic performance to curbing risky health behaviors. So the researchers wanted to see if they could use self-affirmations to help people get past their defensiveness when someone gives them health advice—in this case, that sitting still is unhealthy, and that less sedentary people have fewer health risks, says Emily Falk, the study's lead author and director of the Communication Neuroscience Laboratory at University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.

To test their theory, the team recruited 67 sedentary adults, guiding some of the group through a self-affirmation exercise that helped them focus on their own core values, such as friends and family, independence or humor. Then the researchers gave the whole group advice—"People who sit less are at lower risk for certain diseases"—and watched what happened in their brains, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The people who had been guided through self-affirmations had higher levels of brain activity while hearing the advice. More important, they were more active in the following month. (Participants wore activity monitors on their wrists, and were sent text messages reinforcing the affirmations, including concrete suggestions like "think of a time when you will help a friend or family member reach an accomplishment.") 

Falk says the research focused on sedentary behavior because it is linked to health risks from heart disease to cancer, and because similar research has shown that affirmations are helpful when quitting smoking and drinking. This study adds to the evidence that self-affirmations can help in many situations that require self-control.

See also: Reversing the Mind/Body Connection

While the idea of affirmations still make many people roll their eyes—who didn’t love Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley, who told us, “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggone it, people like you”—the key to using affirmations effectively is knowing what matters most. If friends and family are most important to you, it may be helpful to remind yourself of having fun with them, being present for a big moment or important event, or specific instance of reaching out to a loved one who was struggling.

But if independence is a more important value, remind yourself of times when you stood up for yourself, or spoke out about something when others did not. If you see humor as an important value, remind yourself of when you've diffused a tense moment, or cheered someone up.

See also: How To Be Fit Forever

“We were really excited to be able to see that a simple intervention can change the way the brain responds to messages, and that this goes on to predict message-consistent behavior change,” she says. "Our work shows that when people are affirmed, their brains process subsequent messages differently." 

Photo Credit: Al Franken as Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live’s 'Daily Affirmation' skit. Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty