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To change your life, change your brain

Posted on 06-17-16 in Cognition, Recovery, Research

To change your life, change your brain

Is it really possible to change your life in six weeks? According to researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, it really is possible.

Exciting new findings

In their recent study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Michael D. Mrazek, Ph.D., and his colleagues proved that young adults have the capability to make multiple lasting changes simultaneously to their lifestyle habits. These changes resulted in substantial, lasting health improvements in both body and mind.

Healthy college students were enrolled in a five-hour-per-day program every weekday for six weeks. Each day included two and a half hours of exercise, one hour of mindfulness, and one and a half hours of lecture or discussion about health topics. Healthy diet instructions were given and participants were asked to get eight to 10 hours of sleep per night. Alcohol was limited to one drink per day.

At the end of the study, baseline measures were re-tested, including physical flexibility, endurance, cardiovascular endurance, cognitive and affective testing, and brain scans (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Impressive improvements were discovered in physical fitness, working memory, cognitive test performance, mood, self-esteem, self-efficacy, mindfulness and life satisfaction.

Next came the most amazing part of the study. For six weeks after the study was over, participants received no instruction or support. The same measurements were repeated again. Participants actually continued to show improved muscular and cardiovascular endurance, muscular flexibility, reading comprehension and cognitive improvement. Their mood levels, life satisfaction, self-esteem, self-efficacy and mindfulness continued to improve. They also reported less stress and mind wandering. Their brain scans confirmed that their brains were forming new pathways in multiple regions.

Changing the brain

Neural plasticity is the development of new brain pathways. While the brain is always forming new pathways, not all result in happy memories or healthy behavior patterns. By repeating healthy patterns, new pathways, and thus new habits, are formed. Apparently, multiple areas can be changed at the same time, improving multiple aspects of health together.

Before about age 25, the brain is the most “plastic” (or moldable) that it will be. However, older people can also change their brains by repeating new behaviors. It would be interesting to see how the same study would affect older people.

Breaking bad (habits)

Perhaps it is easier to go from a healthy lifestyle to a healthier lifestyle than it is to break bad habits, but breaking multiple bad habits at the same time really is possible. In fact, doing so may be easier than just focusing on one habit change at a time. Another study examined behavior change with regard to smoking, diet and exercise. The researchers found that those who had been given a moderate number of behavior recommendations were more likely to follow them than those who had too few or too many.

Building new pathways in the brain requires increased blood flow to that part of the brain used in the new thought and action. Changing blood flow patterns and forming new neural connections requires energy, and the brain is very energy efficient. This built-in energy conservation mechanism is what makes change difficult — but not impossible. And change can apparently happen in relatively short periods of time in healthy young people.

Certain bad habits that involve addictive substances are more difficult to break than most. In addition to forming healthy brain pathways, those recovering from substance use usually have some level of cognitive dysfunction as well as co-occurring mental and physical illness. Residential treatment is often needed for those who are unable to stop drinking or using drugs on their own. For some, treatment offers a perfect opportunity to make several healthy changes all at once. A little momentum can go a long way.

About us

The Sovereign Health Group is a leader in behavioral health and substance use treatment. We tirelessly strive to bring the newest, most effective treatments to patients struggling with mental illness, substance use disorders and dual diagnosis. During treatment, we support our patients in developing healthy lifestyle habits that lead to brain health and lasting recovery. To find out more about specialized programs at Sovereign Health, please call us at our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at