Educating people about the mental and physical health benefits of exercising and eating well doesn't necessarily change their behaviors, said Mark Anshel, PhD, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University. What does is helping them discover the disconnect between their daily negative habits and their most deeply held values, said Anshel at APA's 2009 Annual Convention.

As an example, said Anshel, many people will cite "family" as an important personal value guiding their actions, but in their daily lives, might be eating too much and not exercising, putting themselves at risk for poorer health and an early death that will take them away from their families.

"It's when the costs and long-term consequences of the disconnect are so unpleasant, so negative and so dangerous that the person concludes the disconnect is unacceptable and says...'I need to stop doing this,'" Anshel said.

The finding comes from Anshel's research on an intervention designed from the Disconnected Values Model, which he developed and tested with 196 MTSU faculty and staff from 2006 to 2008. During a three-hour orientation kicking off the intervention, participants identified up to five negative habits compromising their personal quality of life, and listed the benefits, costs and long-term consequences of each negative habit, which most often involved daily patterns of eating, exercise and sleep.

Participants then read a list of 40 values and chose the five most important to them—"faith" and "family" were among many people's top priorities. The researchers also asked participants to rate the importance they placed on job performance, health, happiness, family and work-life balance, and how much effort and time they spent on each.

During the orientation, participants reviewed the results and talked about whether their unhealthy habits were in line with their values, or if the two were in conflict, and whether that was acceptable to them or not. If it wasn't and participants wanted to change their habits, the intervention made a performance coach available for weekly, one-hour sessions for 10 weeks.

Participants worked with their coach at the university's fitness center on a program of aerobic conditioning and strength training, part of an action plan that also mapped out time for healthier habits, such as eating breakfast and a better balancing of work and personal activities. Participants also learned about healthy diets during a half-hour individual session with a registered dietician and met with a psychologist (described as a "life skills coach" to the participants) for a mental well-being assessment. In addition, they could join up to five informational sessions with the life skills coach on topics such as why people pursue self-destructive behavior patterns.

The physical health and fitness and mental well-being of each participant was measured before and after the intervention, along with a cholesterol profile from a blood test.

Anshel and his colleagues found that the intervention significantly improved participants' aerobic functioning and muscular strength. Overall, participants got leaner and stronger: Participants started the program with a mean body fat percentage of 28.7, which decreased to 24.1 percent; their maximum bench press score went from 66 pounds to 82 pounds. Participants were also less anxious and depressed after the intervention.

People welcome such data that document their improved well-being, whether it's a score showing how their values and habits more closely match, or a change in their cholesterol numbers, said Anshel.

"The use of data as an incentive to change behavior is something we haven't done enough of, and it warrants future research," said Anshel.