Healthbeat Report: Simple steps to improve your health

July 26, 2012 (CHICAGO)

As the bowling center manager at UIC, Ruby Vega does a lot of running around. But even with good genetics on her side she worried about her increasingly unhealthy habits.

"Definitely doing the fast food. Definitely watching TV and falling asleep to it," said Vega.

Susan Strucinski O'Keefe, 55, hit mid life and started to realize the same thing.

"It was time to make some changes," she said.

Both admit their diets were lacking and their exercise was minimal But neither was interested in a drastic lifestyle overhaul. The thought of a big change was overwhelming and discouraging.

"It's amazing how many people, particularly physicians, really think it's impossible for people to change their unhealthy behaviors, don't even bother. People just can't change," said Bonnie Spring, Ph.D., Preventive Medicine, Northwestern Medicine.

So what if they just made some simple changes. Would it be enough to make a difference?

Researchers at Northwestern Medicine decided to find out. They recruited over 200 people who had four signs of poor health: low levels of exercise, too much sedentary time, high saturated fat levels and low consumption of fruits and vegetables. They were asked to modify just two habits; for example, cutting back on TV time and adding a vegetable to their meals. They were given a modest financial incentive and a hand held computer to record what they did.

"And low and behold they did it. We were really quite astonished at how well they did it," said Spring.

In three weeks, average TV time dropped almost in half, fruit and vegetable intake went up and saturated fat fell. Altering a couple bad habits also seemed to increase people's confidence to make other healthy changes.

Vega and O'Keefe were part of the research. Years later, they're still trying to keep up their healthier ways. O'Keefe takes advantage of treadmill work stations at her job and she keeps track of what she is eating.

"From the end of the study until today, I am down 40 pounds," she said.

Vega is also watching what she eats and she sneaks in physical activity such as doing laundry in between her favorite TV shows.

"I don't feel sluggish. I have a little more energy than I use to," Vega said.

What this trial did not produce was a real increase in physical activity. A study to look into that effect is coming next.

The bottom line: For success that seems effortless, researchers say keep the change simple, keep track your behaviors, reward yourself and seek social support.

For more information on a new trial, visit

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