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According to a new study, tackling multiple goals at the same time may be the key to noticeable, long-lasting self-improvement. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara found that college kids who completed a six-week multidisciplinary training program involving daily exercise, mindfulness practice and personal-health lectures saw an uptick in cognitive performance, mood and physical health and exhibited improved brain connectivity. They published their findings in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Tackling multiple goals at the same time may be the key to noticeable, long-lasting self-improvement.

The Neuroscience of Bettering Yourself

The concept of neuroplasticity says experience alters brain structure and function, even during adulthood. For years, the main question surrounding neuroplasticity was one of “if”: Can doing and thinking change brain wiring and, in turn, the cognitive, emotional and physiological functions regulated by whirring, interconnected neurons?

We’ve settled the “if.” It's now more or less accepted that the brain is fungible. Today's big questions concern the upper limits of plasticity, the type and amount of experience that facilitates plasticity and the brain mechanisms underlying the changes. Studies on neuroplasticity typically examine the brain-changing impact of one behavior or activity: an hour-per-day of jogging or meditating or slapping the bass, not all three. Why? For control and clarity. When multiple factors could explain some observed change, it's hard to know which factor (or combination of factors) is behind that change. If someone cuts calories and takes up spinning, for example, can they say with confidence that their diet made the difference?

Nah. And the UCSB team behind the current study might argue that the person shouldn't try. Because, while controlled experiments may be the way to pinpoint cause-and-effect, they often do so at the expense of simulating reality.

"Given that most phenomena are the result of many interacting causes," study authors wrote, "there is a risk of neglecting how multiple influences combine to have greater effects than when they are studied in isolation." Circumstances give way to change simultaneously, researchers reasoned, so brain plasticity (and associated improvements) should overlap in a comparable manner. They predicted that a full-scale lifestyle renovation would yield similarly pronounced results. 

Testing the Theory

To test their hypothesis, researchers recruited 31 college undergrads to participate in a six-week "intensive lifestyle change program focused on exercise, nutrition, sleep, mindfulness, compassion and relationships." Half of the students (the experimental group) were enrolled; the other half (the control) got put on a waiting list. Everyone completed a battery of tests and questionnaires, including blood analysis, brain scans, assorted cognitive-skills tasks and a range of objective and self-reported measures of psychological and emotional wellbeing. 

Experiment-group participants then began the training, which took up five hours each day. Mornings began with an hour of exercise that targeted flexibility, balance, coordination, strength and body awareness. Next came an hour of mindfulness, which focused on paying attention to "a single aspect of sensory experience," such as the act of breathing or walking. Mindfulness also included compassion meditation, in which they "deliberately generated feelings of compassion and kindness" towards themselves and others. Afternoons began with 90-minute lectures, class discussions or activities, all of which concerned "key concepts and best practices" in a long list of lifestyle habits and mood-states, including sleep, nutrition, drinking, gratitude and happiness. Then, 90 minutes of either Pilates, yoga or personal training. 

"Given that most phenomena are the result of many interacting causes," study authors wrote, "there is a risk of neglecting how multiple influences combine to have greater effects than when they are studied in isolation."

Additionally, participants were supposed to curb drinking, cut out non-produce carbs after exercise, generally stick to a whole-foods diet, get eight-to-10 hours of sleep a night and keep a regular sleep schedule. Participants chronicled their lifestyle patterns in journals and met individually with instructors to discuss their progress in the program. 

After six weeks, everyone repeated the same assortment of tests they took at the outset. Members of the waitlist group basically didn't change — why would they? But, the training group exhibited all sorts of changes. Here are some of them:

  • They exhibited improved flexibility, cardiovascular endurance and muscular endurance.
  • Their blood showed reduced levels of a lipid associated with cardiovascular disease.
  • They performed better on cognitive tasks measuring focus, working memory and reading comprehension.
  • They reported heightened emotional and psychological well-being with respect to mood, life satisfaction, self-esteem, stress and mind-wandering tendencies.
  • Post-training brain scans showed increased connectivity between brain regions associated with emotional and physical self-awareness, as well as cognitive control. 

The pre-and-post program differences weren't subtle. Participants exhibited improvements in mood and stress significantly higher than typically observed from mindfulness training alone. 

Taken together, study authors wrote, the findings "indicate that a multifaceted intervention can simultaneously produce substantial and enduring improvements across a wide variety of psychological and physiological systems in healthy young adults." The study is an exception to the prevailing one-thing-at-a-time rule, researchers said.

Now, if only everyone had five hours a day and a dedicated team of experts at their disposal.