Just before you picked up this magazine, you probably made a decision that affected your health. Maybe you bought the pizza instead of the salad. Or are sipping soda instead of water. Perhaps you decided once again to delay the beginning of your long-planned exercise routine. Every day there are hundreds of seemingly trivial decisions that individually may not mean a whole lot but in combination can add or subtract a substantial amount of time to or from our lives. As a doctor, I am convinced that most people know the healthier choice; they just need frequent reminders to make it. And that is exactly what some new research has confirmed. (Watch TIME's video "How to Lose Hundreds of Pounds.")
According to a study published in the June issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, simple e-mail reminders to eat more healthfully or increase physical activity had a significant effect on the recipients' behavior. Out of 787 office workers who participated in the study, 351 were randomly selected to receive weekly e-mails and midweek reminders generated by a cost-effective, easily scalable program called ALIVE! (A Lifestyle Intervention via Email). E-mail recipients got to choose one of three focus areas: boosting physical activity, increasing fruit and vegetable intake or decreasing sugars and saturated fats. The e-mails, devised by a company founded by a public-health professor at the University of California, Berkeley, were brief and contained one small goal a week, such as going for a walk during a coffee break, ordering a salad with grilled chicken for lunch or avoiding the cupcakes in the conference room. (Watch a video about a treadmill you can use while on the job.)
These little suggestions worked. By the end of the 16-week study, which was conducted by Kaiser Permanente and NutritionQuest and funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, participants who received the physical-activity e-mails increased their exercise regimen by an hour a week more than the control group had. And participants who focused on a healthy diet reduced the saturated and trans fats they consumed by more than 1 g a day. Turns out the people who wanted to increase their fruit-and-vegetable intake were among the healthiest to start with, but even they bumped up their consumption of those foods by about a third of a cup per day.
"These quick alerts remind your brain of the goals you've set for yourself," says Barbara Sternfeld, senior research scientist at Kaiser Permanente and the study's lead investigator. "So instead of standing around talking to a co-worker for 10 minutes, you may decide to take a lap around the parking lot and back."
Might not seem like much, but the truth is, small changes can make a big difference in your health. Studies show that switching from butter to soft margarine reduces your bad cholesterol and by extension your risk of getting heart disease 10%. So come up with a simple step, like "Eat seven colors of fruits and vegetables tomorrow," and program it into your electronic calendar as a recurring reminder. This new goal just became part of your job description. Your bonus at the end of the year? A longer, healthier life. With reporting by Danielle Dellorto