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Music? Friendship? A Treadmill Under Your Laptop?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reinforcing people’s sense of well-being can improve their self control and ability to lose weight, new research suggests. Well-designed financial incentives may also aid weight loss, studies show, as can easy opportunities to exercise during the work day.

Sixty million adults in the U.S. are obese, increasing their risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease, and making obesity America’s second leading cause of preventable death. Scholars and policy makers are investigating differing ways to fight fat.

Geoffrey Cohen, PhD, professor of organizational behavior in education, psychology and business at the Stanford Graduate School of Business describes one study of college age women who were dissatisfied with their weight. Researchers focused on the idea that maintaining healthy weight requires ability to cope with stress, which can deplete the self-control needed to eat healthy food and avoid high calorie treats. Study participants were given a list of things people value, such as music and friendship, and told to write about one. Members of one group were asked to write about a value important to them, and members of another group were asked to write about something they did not value, but that others might.

Women who wrote about their own values ate fewer of the tasty treats placed in the lab to tempt them, and were also thinner after 2.5 months. Results were shared at the "Science of Getting People to Do Good” briefing at Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation. In a story on the Stanford website, Cohen comments, "These results provide the first evidence that affirming something you find important can be psychologically fortifying enough to reduce health risks.” Women who did the values affirmation exercise also did better on memory test, researchers found. Cohen notes that working memory, which allows people to keep goal-relevant information in mind, is a critical component of self control.

Men aged 30 and older in another study were given a goal of losing 16 pounds in 16 weeks. Members of one group could win money in a lottery if they achieved certain goals, members of another group deposited money they’d lose if they missed goals, and another group was left to its own devices. After four months, the deposit-contract group lost an average of 14 pounds and the lottery group lost 13 pounds. Both incentivized groups lost more than the control group, though Leslie John, PhD, of the Harvard Business School, who co-authored the study, says results were not fully sustained afterwards and more research on financial incentives is needed.

Several businesses are trying to rein in health costs and maintain productivity by giving employees convenient ways to stay fit, according to researchers at the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute. A Wall Street Journal story by Lauren Weber, posted on the center’s website, describes how changes in the workplace can provide incremental heath improvements among employees. Some companies have turned hallways into walking tracks, where workers do laps. Humana, the healthcare insurance company, installed 40 Walkstations—treadmills with laptop hookups—at its Louisville, KY, campus. They’re placed around the perimeter of work areas, close and visible to employees, who can use them when they are reviewing reports or returning calls.

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