Danny Kim for TIME
By Alexandra Sifferlin
May 12, 2016
TIME Health
For more, visit TIME Health.

To make healthy changes, it’s long been recommended that people start with a small tweak to their lifestyle, and build upon it. But a new small study suggests that embracing a wide variety of healthier behaviors at once, including changes to diet and exercise, may be even more beneficial.

What the researchers found in a recent study, the New York Times reports, was that people who changed several aspects of their life to be healthier saw bigger improvements in their mood and stress levels compared to people in other trials who changed just one part of their lifestyle. The study was very small, with only about 30 college students. Half of them went about their days as normal, while the other half changed their behaviors significantly, by doing exercises in the morning, including stretching and resistance training, and attending an hour-long session in meditation and stress reduction. A couple times a week they also increased the intensity of their workouts and learned about sleep and nutrition, and they met with instructors to discuss personal challenges and were encouraged to partake in random acts of kindness.

Before they started the interventions, men and women in the study underwent physical and cognitive tests, including graduate comprehension exams, as well as brain scans. A few weeks later they repeated the tests and brain scans and the researchers found that the control group performed the same, but the students with intensive behavior changes were more focus and reported improved happiness and memory.

“Our findings suggest that making multiple lifestyle changes at once can lead to both larger and more numerous benefits than typically observed when focusing on just one thing at a time,” says study author Michael Mrazek of the University of California Santa Barbara. “We found parallel and enduring improvements in more than a dozen different outcomes that truly matter in our lives—strength, endurance, flexibility, focus, reading comprehension, working memory, self-esteem, happiness, and more.”

Mrazek says it may be that each lifestyle change supports all the others, and that reinforcing lifestyle changes with other behavior tweaks may make the overall goal more sustainable. “Exercising regularly makes it easier to sleep. Sleeping well makes it easier to meditate. Being mindful makes it easier to choose healthy foods,” he says. “If you try to force a change like drinking less coffee without also addressing other relevant aspects of your life like sleep, you’ll likely find that it’s hard to make the new coffee habit stick.”

But is it possible to sustain so many lifestyle changes? And is it really better to transform all behaviors at one time—over smaller changes one after the other? Unfortunately those questions still remain. The study is too small to make any definitive conclusions on how to best achieve a healthier life, and some researchers are skeptical of the findings.

“I think that this interpretation is way overblown,” says Russell A. Poldrack, an Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. “I don’t see how the study tells us anything about different ways to give up bad habits, since it did not compare different interventions, just a single multifaceted intervention versus a very weak control. All it says is that changing lots of things at once can have an effect, but we don’t really know where that effect is coming from. In addition, the sample size is far too small for us to make any strong conclusions.” Poldrack was not involved in the study.

More research will be needed to best understand the most successful ways to improve health and wellbeing. “Our findings suggest truly remarkable changes are possible if you’re willing to put in the work,” says Mrazek.

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