June 19 (UPI) -- Four unhealthy behaviors can lead to cancer and chronic disease, but researchers say a lifestyle change can curb these behaviors -- and maybe stave off disease.
A lifestyle intervention for people who have low or moderate physical activity, lots of screen time and whose diet is low in fruits and vegetables while being high in saturated fat can reduce health risk by making changes, according to researchers at Northwestern University.
Their findings, published Tuesday in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, suggest the risk of developing heart disease and common cancers, including breast, colon and prostate, could be minimized with changes following a lifestyle intervention.
"Our findings suggest that prevention of chronic disease through behavior change is feasible," Dr. Bonnie Spring, director of the Center for Behavior and Health in the Institute for Public Health and Medicine at Northwestern's School of Medicine, said in a press release. "They contradict the pessimistic assumption that it's not possible to motivate relatively healthy people to make large, long-lasting healthy lifestyle changes."
Between 2012 and 2014, 212 adults with a median age of 41 were enrolled in the study, of the participants, 76 percent were women, 59 percent were minorities and 69 percent were college educated.
Study participants improved their eating and activity habits with the help of a smartphone app, a wearable activity tracker, social support from a coach and a small financial incentive -- those who perfectly maintained their new habits were rewarded with $5 per week for 12 weeks.
Coaches counseled people by telephone weekly for three months, then biweekly for the next three months. For the last nine months, participants retained the intervention app but received no further coaching.
The participants increased their intake of fruits and vegetables by 6.5 servings per day from two, decreased saturated fat intake 3.6 percent to less than 8 percent of their calories, decreased screen time from a baseline of 4.5 hours per day by three hours and they increased time spent doing moderate to vigorous exercise by 25 minutes per day.
In past research, healthy behavior change usually reverts once financial incentives end. In the new study, however, participants continued to achieve positive results during the nine-month trial, even when financial incentives ended after 12 weeks.
The study participants also did not do the same thing -- while some achieved the same gains by implementing all four diet and exercise changes at the same time, others made the changes sequentially and staggered their implementation, but found similar success.
While many people can feel defeated or have trouble keeping up with the changes, Spring said two features of the intervention helped keep people on track: modest early financial incentives and digital feedback, which went to both participants and coaches.
"We suggest that giving accelerometer feedback to both the participant and their coach is the way to improve diet and activity habits, because the coach can support, hold the person accountable and personalize coaching when they know what's going on," Spring said.
Insurance companies and business have offered incentives to adapt to a health lifestyle, including discounts on gym memberships, cash payments and lower premiums, but studies and surveys have found the programs have not had a significant effect on the health of employees or on the cost of their healthcare.
With the support system Northwestern researchers have baked into the lifestyle intervention concept, they say a similar program could help people remain engaged long enough to actually benefit.
"When most people start a diet and exercise plan, they're excited to hit the ground running, but they can feel quickly defeated when they can't keep up with everything," Spring said. "The tech tools, support and incentives our intervention offered made the changes simple and motivating enough that our participants were able to start making them all at once without becoming overwhelmed."