Quilted Science

Patchwork thoughts on psychology, neuroscience, and human behavior.

Personal Training for Your Brain

Activity monitors encourage forming healthier habits.

The Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone Up, Withings Pulse and various Fit Bit models, are just a few of the fitness activity monitors currently on the market.

All of these bracelet or clip-on devices are popular, especially as holiday gifts, because they work.  People lose weight and become healthier by using them.

But why and how do these devices help people become healthier? 

Why these devices work is because they facilitate healthy behaviors, like increasing activity levels, sleeping productively and eating smarter calories.

How activity monitors encourage healthy lifestyles might be by creating new habits to override unhealthy ones.

Habits are any behaviors—simple and complex—that are performed without thinking.  Example include making coffee just after you stumble out of bed in the morning, reading while eating lunch or chewing your fingernails. 

Habits do not start out being processed unconsciously. Neuroscientist Ann Graybiel, who works at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT studying neural underpinnings of habits, wrote in a review article about the neuroscience of habits, “In the initial stages of habit learning, behaviors are not automatic. They are goal directed…” 

Different brain systems, or groups of brain areas working together, control how we behave. One such system is the “goal-directed” system and another is the “habit” system. The goal-directed system works consciously and is where behaviors that might end up becoming habits are first processed. The habit system runs unconsciously. 

When habits are formed, brain activity shifts from goal-directed to habit system. (Graybiel, Annu Rev Neurosci, 2008: 31, 359).
http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev.neuro.29.051605.112851?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori:rid:crossref.org&rfr
Initially when you set a goal—such as “I want to exercise for a 20 minutes every day”—brain areas that are part of the goal-directed system control the behaviors leading to you exercising for 20 minutes. After repetition through time, brain activity underlying those behaviors leading to 20 minutes of exercise shifts from the goal-directed system to the habit system. Exercising for 20 minutes a day is now a habit.

Activity monitors literally help you train your brain to create healthier habits. They automatically track activity levels and, in some cases, sleep patterns. Though activity monitors do not automatically record calorie intake, they facilitate tracking food consumption. Most devices use a website to aggregate your data, which includes what the device monitors (movement and maybe sleep) and also your food log. Accessible data enables you to track and visualize your progress. Seeing graphs of calorie consumption, activity levels and weight loss can be both informative and motivating. Putting the data online also allows you to decide if you want to share your progress with others through social media or through the device’s own online community.  The role of social media in weight loss is considered promising, but so far has not been studied much scientifically.

Regardless of whether or not you make your data visible to others, just keeping some form of a food diary results in weight loss, even in the absence of defined dietary changes.

Can you remember everything that you ate today? What about yesterday?

If you answered no to either question, it’s possible that you are either distracted while eating, maybe you’re stressed over all, or maybe some of your eating behaviors are habitual.

Tracking food helps form healthier eating habits (like eating more veggies) and it can also increase mindful eating

(And if you’re stressed overall, tracking your sleep might be useful too!)

One large-scale and long-term study looked at the effects of tracking food consumption.  The lead author on that study, Jack Hollis, Ph.D., said in a press release when the study was published, “The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost. Those who kept daily food records lost twice as much weight as those who kept no records.”

If just keeping track of food you eat aids weight loss, it is not hard to imagine that also tracking exercise and sleep will be also be beneficial to your health.

In case vocal children are not reminding you several times a day, Christmas is just a few days away. And that also means that New Year’s and resolutions (like being healthier and more mindful in life) are right around the corner. There’s still time, albeit with overnight shipping, to treat yourself or loved one to an activity monitor and healthier habits.

Kimberlee D’Ardenne, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist by training, science writer by choice.

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