Category: Health

If you’re fairly young and healthy, moderate exercise will probably be more enjoyable than you think

Silhouette in 2017 on the hill at sunsetBy Christian Jarrett

It’s that time of year when many of us are trying our best to begin a new exercise habit. One psychological factor affecting our chances is how we think we’ll feel during the exercise, and how that compares to the way we actually feel when we get going, and how we feel afterwards. A new study in Health Psychology has explored whether it’s possible to increase people’s adherence to a new exercise regime by making their expectations more positive. While the main intervention was a disappointment, there is an encouraging message in the results: moderate-to-vigorous exercise is likely to be more enjoyable than you think, and simply knowing this will probably help you enjoy your exercise even more.

Continue reading “If you’re fairly young and healthy, moderate exercise will probably be more enjoyable than you think”

Joining a crowd transforms us psychologically, with serious health implications

Image: AlGraChe/Flickr

By guest blogger Laura Spinney

Glastonbury 1997, the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the pilgrimage to Lourdes in 2008: what do they have in common? All three were the backdrop to outbreaks of communicable disease, and so of interest to doctors working in mass gathering medicine. The goal of this relatively young field is to address the specific health problems associated with mass events, but two British psychologists now claim that this can only be done effectively by understanding the psychological transformation that people undergo when they join a crowd.

Continue reading “Joining a crowd transforms us psychologically, with serious health implications”

Teens reject junk food when healthy eating is framed as rebellion

Fit young woman fighting off fast foodBy guest blogger Julia Gottwald

Crisps, coke, and chocolate bars. What might be a special treat for some of us, is now a multi-billion pound industry and a staple of many people’s diets. Advertising campaigns from the snack food companies, often starring sports stars, send the message that we can offset any adverse effects of consuming their products simply by getting more physical exercise. But you can’t really “run off” a burger – recent studies show a lack of exercise is not to blame for rising obesity rates, bad diets are the real driver.

Interventions to help reduce junk food consumption are especially important for children and adolescents – prevention is better than cure in this context because obesity is so difficult to treat. Unfortunately, while health education in the classroom has shown some success among young children, adolescents have been notoriously hard to reach.

But now a large-scale study published in PNAS has tried an innovative approach to change teenagers’ attitudes towards healthy eating, and the results are promising. The researchers, led by Christopher Bryan at the University of Chicago and David Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that previous interventions have probably been unsuccessful because of a major flaw: they focused on a future, healthier you and assumed that this would be enough motivation for adolescents. In contrast, the new intervention cleverly exploits teenagers’ instinct for rebelliousness and autonomy, and the value they place on social justice. Continue reading “Teens reject junk food when healthy eating is framed as rebellion”

Goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower

By Christian Jarrett

Those people with their gym-toned bodies and high-flying careers. Somehow they always seem to make different choices than the rest of us – fruit over chocolate, work over TV. It’s as if they are capable of super-human willpower, but a new study that’s currently in press at Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests it’s not so. Achieving your work and fitness goals is not about exercising self-control, the findings imply, rather it’s about avoiding temptation in the first place.  Continue reading “Goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower”

What’s it like to be a child and your sibling is diagnosed with cancer?

By Christian Jarrett

When the dreadful news arrives that a child has cancer, understandably the focus of parents and health professionals turns to supporting the sick child as best they can. But also caught up in the nightmare are the child’s siblings. Not only will they likely be consumed by shock and fear, but they must adapt to the cancer journey the whole family has to embark on.

Official health guidance here in the UK and in the USA states that it’s important to provide support to the siblings of children with cancer. Yet the reality is we know relatively little about their experience. A new study in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry helps address this research gap, based on interviews with two brothers and four sisters – now aged 12 to 18 – of children and teenagers with cancer. The results reveal the shock and fear the siblings experienced, and the challenges they’ve faced, but also uncover a silver lining in the form of “post traumatic growth”. Continue reading “What’s it like to be a child and your sibling is diagnosed with cancer?”

People with high self-control have a cunning approach to healthy eating

If challenged to think of ways to eat more healthily, something like this would probably go through my mind: “Could try to eat more blueberries (but yuk, I don’t like those much), and I suppose I should give up chocolate biscuits (but, erm, never going to happen, they are an essential part of my morning coffee routine)”. According to a new paper in Psychology and Marketing I am showing the typical approach to healthy eating of a person with low self-control and what’s more, my way of thinking is likely to lead me to failure. Continue reading “People with high self-control have a cunning approach to healthy eating”

A preliminary psychology of binge TV watching

A new study in the Journal of Health Psychology is the first to provide a scholarly definition of binge TV watching and to investigate some of the factors that explain how much people indulge in it.

According to Emily Walton-Pattison at Newcastle University and her colleagues, binge TV watching is when you “watch more than two episodes of the same TV show in one sitting” – a habit that’s become more frequent since the popularity of DVD box sets and streaming TV services.

I have fond memories of my own first binge TV session: watching 24 with my wife in a holiday cottage in the Lake District, a crackling fire in the background, snow falling outside. Bliss. But the researchers see things differently: binge TV watching contributes to sedentary behaviour, increases risk of obesity and interferes with healthy sleep habits.

They surveyed 86 people (recruited via social media) about their binge TV watching habits and various psychological constructs, such as whether they expected to experience regret after a binge session. Based on the researchers’ definition, the participants had binge-watched an average of 1.42 times in the past week, taking in an average of 2.94 episodes in 2.51 hours. BBC iPlayer and Netflix were the most popular means of bingeing.

A quarter of the difference in how much people binged was explained by their intentions to binge and expectations that it would be a rewarding, fun thing to do. Other factors that were also relevant included experiences of automaticity (“I did it without thinking”) and anticipated regret and goal conflict (seeing bingeing as interfering with other activities) – both of which were associated with less bingeing.

The researchers said that “further more in-depth and rigorous research into being watching is warranted” but that their preliminary findings already offer hints as to how to curtail people’s binge watching habits. For example, they said that TV streaming services could be adapted to counter the mindless aspect of bingeing. “Some online streaming services include in-built interruptions after a number of consecutive episodes have been reached. There would be opportunities to harness these interruptions,” they said.

‘Just one more episode’: Frequency and theoretical correlates of television binge watching

–further reading–
Psychologists investigate a major, ignored reason for our lack of sleep – bedtime procrastination
Forgive yourself for relaxing in front of the TV and the couch time might actually do you some good

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Good news! Planning naughty lapses can help you achieve your goals

It’s OK: I planned this! 

There’s a school of thought that says if you want to reach your goals, your commitment must be total. To save more money, you must never go on a splurge. To lose weight, you must never indulge. But this path is joyless and risky, say the authors of a new paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. If you follow the total approach, then one lapse and you fee like a failure, your motivation dips and before you know it, your goal is in tatters. Much better, they say, to schedule opportunities to be naughty – what they call  “planned hedonic deviations”. This helps you feel in control, makes the whole process more fun, and keeps your morale and motivation flying high. Ultimately, these researchers say, you’ll be more likely to succeed.

To test their ideas, Rita Coelho do Vale and her colleagues first asked 59 students to role-play being on a diet. Half were on a traditional diet that involved restricting themselves to 1500 calories every day, the other half were on an “intermittent diet” – they had to restrict their intake to 1300 calories six days a week, but every seventh day, they could relax and enjoy 2700 calories.

For the role-play, the students went through the process of picking their hypothetical meals from a menu each day and at the end of the process said how much self-control they thought they’d have left. They also had to imagine being confronted with a snack aisle at the end of the week, and suggest ways they would resist the temptation. The key finding here is that, at the end of the imaginary week, the students on the diet with one planned naughty day per week said that they felt like would have more self-control left, and they also managed to come up with more strategies to avoid the end-of-week temptation.

More convincing, a second study involved 36 participants actually dieting for two weeks, keeping diaries of their experience and coming in to the lab to be weighed. Those who were on the diet with one planned naughty day per week managed to sustain stronger feelings of self-control across the dieting period, they found the whole experience more enjoyable and they reported more sustained motivation. They also lost just as much weight as the other participants who were on a traditional diet with no planned naughty days.

Finally, the researchers surveyed 64 people who said they were currently striving for a goal, such as a healthier habit or saving money. Some were told about a typical goal plan that involved totally committing to the plan with no lapses, the others were told about a plan that involved scheduled breaks: an occasional chance to engage at set times in a behaviour inconsistent with the goal. People who read about the latter type of plan reported feeling more motivated and thought the plan would be more helpful.

The researchers said their findings support a “straightforward and new technique for effective self-management”. They continued: “This is new, and it points to the importance of flexibility in goal pursuit.”


Coelho do Vale, R., Pieters, R., & Zeelenberg, M. (2016). The benefits of behaving badly on occasion: Successful regulation by planned hedonic deviations Journal of Consumer Psychology, 26 (1), 17-28 DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2015.05.001

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Experienced meditators have brains that are physically 7 years younger than non-meditators

If you want to keep your brain young, you could do a lot worse than taking up meditation. That’s if you believe the results of a new study in NeuroImage that’s found experienced meditators have brains that appear 7.5 years younger, on average, than non-meditators.

The researchers used a computer programme that they created previously – it was trained on brain scans taken from hundreds of people to recognise what brains of different ages typically look like, in terms of amounts of grey matter, white matter, and cerebral spinal fluid. For the new study, the same programme analysed the brains of 50 experienced meditators (average age 51, with an average of 20 years meditation experience) and the brains of 50 healthy, non-meditators (also average age 51) and it produced a figure for each person saying how old their brain was in terms of its physical condition, as compared with the actual age of the person. Using this approach, the group of meditators had brains that were 7.5 years younger than the control group, on average.

Moreover, among the controls, the gap between their “brain age” and chronological age didn’t vary with greater age, but among the meditators it did: it was the older meditators who had brains that seemed particularly well preserved, suggesting that meditation provides protection against the brain cell loss associated with aging.

Should you believe these findings? Prior research has shown that meditation appears to increase brain volume. But some issues to bear in mind include the fact that meditation might not preserve the brain, rather people with more age-resistant brains might be more likely to take up meditation. Similarly, we don’t know if people who meditate do other healthy things that non-meditators don’t do. Another caveat: this study just looked at the physical characteristics of the participants’ brains, there was no test of their mental functioning. As a final aside, the researchers also noted that their female participants had more youthful brains than men – at age 50, they appeared three years younger, on average.

Estimating brain age using high-resolution pattern recognition: Younger brains in long-term meditation practitioners


Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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It’s important to respect the different ways that young women feel after mastectomy

One woman said she was proud of her
scars – the “war wounds of life”.

In the UK, nearly 10,000 young women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year and the treatment for many is mastectomy – the surgical removal of one or more of their breasts. It’s easy to assume that the effect on their body image will be negative, and UK guidelines currently state that all mastectomy patients should be told about options for reconstructive surgery. However, a key message to emerge from a new survey of young women who have undergone mastectomy is that there is huge variability in how they are affected, and that any support therefore needs to be individualised.

Sarah Grogan and Jayne Mechan (the latter has a diagnosis of breast cancer) conducted an online survey of 49 women recruited via an online support network, all of whom had undergone unilateral or bilateral mastectomy before the age of 45. Analysing their answers, the researchers identified four main themes.

The first concerned the way the women spoke of how they’d initially downplayed worries of aesthetics because their priority was survival. They also distanced themselves from the affected parts of their breasts and objectified them: “The thing for me was just to remove the offending article”, “I just had a gut feeling that I wanted the whole thing taken …”.

Post-mastectomy, body confidence became an issue, but some coped better than others. “I have lost all self-confidence in my naked body,” said one woman. “Body image has never worried me. I am who I am and I don’t go out to impress people,” said another.

The third theme was “changed identity”. Some women described compensating for their changed appearance: “wearing skirts, more make-up”, said one. “I want my body to look and feel strong so am doing quite a lot of weight lifting to try and remove the feeling that my body was weak and failed me,” said another. Others described the difficulties of adjustment: “I feel like I don’t recognise myself anymore. I used to wear low cut tops and now I cover up.”

The final theme on the effects of cancer treatment, including scars, weight gain and early menopause also revealed a variety of experiences among the women. Some took a positive view: “My scars are my war wounds of life. … I’m proud of them”. Others described how they were more bothered by the overall changes to their appearance: “Do not feel great about body image at all. Have gained weight due to early menopause, think that bothers me more than my breasts”.

The researchers said their results suggested women undergoing mastectomy may benefit from interventions that include body acceptance techniques and advice on media literacy, to help them critique cultural pressure to be slender. Above all they said they were struck by the “variability of experience of women experiencing a relatively similar event.” They said this insight has implications for health professionals – “it is important [they] do not expect homogenous patterns of negative responses in women who have had mastectomies so that they are able to provide tailored support if and when needed.”

  ResearchBlogging.orgGrogan, S., & Mechan, J. (2016). Body image after mastectomy: A thematic analysis of younger womens written accounts Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1177/1359105316630137

further reading
Which health beliefs held by women predict how often they check their breasts?
Existential angst can deter women from checking their breasts

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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