Taking a moment to enjoy the little things in life could help people make better decisions about their health, a new study suggests.
The findings show that about 55 percent of people with coronary artery disease who practiced "positive affirmations" succeeded in sticking to a plan to get more exercise, while 37 percent of people in a control group did. The positive-thinking group also walked an average of 3.4 miles more each week than the control group.
"This simple approach gives patients the tools that help them fulfill their promise to themselves that they will do what's needed for their health," said lead author Dr. Mary Charlson, executive director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.
"For example, if it's raining and they don't feel like exercising, these strategies can help them get past this mental block and into their sneakers," Charlson said.
The study is published online today (Jan. 24) in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.
The findings are based on three experiments in which a total of 756 participants were randomly assigned to either the experimental "positive-affect" group or the control group. Participants all had a chronic disease, either coronary artery disease, high blood pressure or asthma.
Participants in both groups wrote personal contracts about the behavior changes they wanted to make, and received phone calls every two months to check in on their progress.
Researchers encouraged participants in the positive-affect group to think, throughout their day, of little things in their lives that make them feel good. They also asked them to use self-affirmation to help overcome obstacles to changing their behavior. For example, participants might recall moments in their lives they were proud of, such as a graduation.
People in the positive-affect group also received surprise gifts, such as tote bags, prior to the phone sessions. The monetary value of the gifts was unimportant, Charlson said, rather, the gifts were symbolic and served to reinforce the idea of positive thinking.
For those in the study with high blood pressure, who were mostly African Americans, 42 percent who practiced positive affirmations stuck to their plan to take their medication, compared with 36 percent in the control group.
For people with asthma, no difference was seen in how each group expended energy. However, there was some benefit for those needing medical care during the study.
Overall, the behavior changes appeared to be beneficial.
"Positive affect made a real difference -- patients are better able to follow through on behaviors to improve their health," Charlson said.