Between losing weight, improving focus, and achieving a better sleep schedule, most people can envision a few lifestyle changes they’d like to make for themselves. But doing them all at once can seem daunting, so oftentimes we try to make progress on our goals by starting with one change at a time. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara, however, suggest this isn’t the best practice. In their new study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, they suggest tackling all of our lifestyle changes at once can be far more effective.

"It occurred to us that real changes in people's lives don't occur in a vacuum,” said Michael Mrazek, lead author of the paper, in a press release. “We wanted to see how much change is possible if you help someone improve all these dimensions of their life simultaneously."

The researchers recruited 31 college students for a six week study; 16 of the students were put in a control group while 15 participated in an intervention. The intervention took place for five hours each weekday over the six weeks, and included two-and-a-half hours of physical exercise, one hour of mindfulness practice, and one-and-a-half hours of lecture. The lecture portion of the intervention included discussions on topics like sleep, nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, compassion, relationships, and wellbeing. Students who participated in the intervention were also advised to limit their alcohol consumption to one drink a day, eat a diet of mostly whole foods, and sleep eight to 10 hours a day.

Compared to members of the control group, the researchers observed significant improvements in the intervention participants across many measures of physical and mental health, including strength, endurance, flexibility, working memory, standardized test performance, focus, mood, self-esteem, mindfulness, and life satisfaction. Six weeks after the intervention, the participants continued to show improvement in all areas.

"We predicted that the intervention would lead to substantial improvements in health, cognitive abilities, and well-being, but we didn't know how long they would last,” Mrazek said. “It seemed possible that some of the benefits wouldn't extend beyond the training. So I was surprised that even without any contact and support, participants maintained significant improvements at the six-week follow up."

Though the researchers will need to conduct additional research to explain how these changes are possible, Mrazek believes it is because pursuing many goals at once is beneficial.

"Recent research suggests it’s often more effective to make two or more changes simultaneously, especially when those changes reinforce one another,” he said. “It's easier to drink less coffee if at the same time you get more sleep. Our intervention extended this logic by helping people make progress in many ways, which can create an upward spiral where one success supports the next.”

Overall, the study’s results suggest that it is possible for the average person to achieve many of their mental and physical goals simultaneously.

"I hope this research raises a sense of possibility, and maybe even sense of expectation, about what is possible for someone who wants to improve his or her life. As encouraging as these results are, I think this is only a preview of what will ultimately be achieved through future interventions that draw on continual advances in science and technology. The true limits of how much a person can change is a mostly unexplored frontier of scientific understanding."

Source: Mrazek MD, Mooneyham BW, Mrazek KL, Schooler JW. Pushing the Limits: Cognitive, Affective, and Neural Plasticity Revealed by an Intensive Multifaceted Intervention. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2016.