The simple activity of thinking about our core values can improve how we respond to health advice, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania have concluded.
Despite the surge in public health warnings about the negative effects of a sedentary life style, the population of couch potatoes is increasing in both developed and developing countries.
Hearing the advice that we need to lose a few pounds or get more active to improve our health can often get our defences up, leading to the advice being neglected. What can be done to help us let our guard down?
Writing in PNAS, Professor Emily Falk and colleagues have shown that simple self-affirmation activities can greatly improve our response to health advice.
Self-affirmation entails thinking about our values and what is important to us. “If you told me friends and family were really important to you I would have you think about situations where you might do meaningful things with your friends and family” explains Falk. Another example could be thinking about getting a promotion if your career is very important to you.
Falk and her team wanted to understand what happens in the brain during self-affirmation. They scanned the brains of inactive adults to see if self-affirmation followed by health advice sparked activity in certain brain regions, and if this affected their activity levels.
During self-affirmation the brain exhibited heightened activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region associated with positivity and open-mindedness. This brain activity leads to improved responses to, often hard to hear, advice.
The open-mindedness created by self-affirmation makes us more happy to take on and act on valuable health advice.
Being affirmed has long lasting effects. Using a gadget worn on the wrist to measure activity levels, Falk and her team were able to track if their participants were following the advice and being more active. Those who had been affirmed showed a sustained increase in activity levels, but those who weren't stuck to their lazy ways.
This intervention can not only improve our health, but has wider applications. Self-affirmation has previously been shown to help underprivileged or minority group students to improve their school grades.
Falk is confident this approach has great potential “This is one way we can use something really simple, that pretty much everybody has access to, to make a big impact.”