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Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Healthy Habits Tip. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired May 21, 2016 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:47] DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN HOST/CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: No matter how disciplined you might be, we all have them -- bad habits you want to break and good habits we want to make.

This is VITAL SIGNS. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Habits can become so ingrained we don't realize we're doing them. You can thank your brain for that, specifically the basal ganglia. That's the part of the brain responsible for habit formation. In fact, once a task becomes second nature, your brain essentially shuts down.

Out of all the habits we have, eating is probably one of the most routine. You might not realize how much of an impact your environment is having on your eating habits.


GUPTA (voice-over): Does this look familiar? The TV is on. You're engrossed in a show and you've got snacks in your hand.

Before you know it, all the chips are gone. In this age of binge watching, research shows mindless eating is on the rise.

BRIAN WANSINK, PROFESSOR & AUTHOR: It's so automatic to some extent our environment ends up facilitating a good habit, but also ends up facilitating a bad habit.

GUPTA: This group of college students is actually part of a study. It's all the brain child of Brian Wansink, professor, researcher, author. He's dedicated much of his career to observing our eating habits.

(on camera): If you take the time to control your environment, how much of an impact can that have on mindless eating?

WANSINK: We suspect based on research that simply controlling your environment ends up influencing about 70 percent of what you eat on a regular basis. Simply having a fruit bowl sitting out on your counter within three feet of where you typically watch will lead you to eat more fruit, actually about 70 percent more fruit than you otherwise would.

GUPTA (voice-over): Brian and his team conduct most of those studies on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. That's where you'll find their food and brand lab, set up to look like

a kitchen at your home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So, in a moment, we're going to watch an episode of the Big Bang Theory.

WANSINK: What we can do is we can make small changes and figure out what influences you. Importantly what can be done to turn things around.

GUPTA: John Brand is a post-doctoral researcher. He's observing the study today. The goal is to see if a visual cue will provide an awareness of how much these students are snacking. In this case, every fifth chip is dyed red.

JOHN BRAND, RESEARCHER, FOOD AND BRAND LAB: So, the biggest thing when you're eating or when you're watching TV is that you're not actively paying attention to what you're eating. You're engrossed in a TV show or you're reading you're book and so, you just kind of mindlessly eat. So, what we try to do today is we try to bring people's attention to how much food they're eating. If you dye every fifth chip red the fact of seeing that red chip will highlight the fact you've eaten 20 chips. We know doing that will decrease the amount of chips people eat.

GUPTA: How many food decisions do you think you make in a day? John says most people would answer around 30. But their research shows on average we make more than 200 food related decisions every day. Those are habits. We don't even think about. A lot of that is influenced by our environment.

WANSINK: I think for a long time people thought that the solution to eating better is just be mindful and to think of every bite you eat, and study nutritional labels. But for most of us, we've got a life going on. It's kind of hard to expect us to sit down and eat half a pea and figure out if we're hungry or not. We set up our environment so we end up mindlessly eating the right way. And all of our studies have been based on figuring out what trips us up how can we change things so we can gleefully go through life, eat better, be happier, without having to be a full time job.

GUPTA: And that brings us to our first healthy tip. Brian's research shows that simply using a smaller plate will cut down on the amount of food serves by 22 percent.

[14:35:02] UNIDENTIFID FEMALE: So, at this point, we're going to ask you to complete a survey.

GUPTA: In today's study, John found the students' overwhelmingly ate less chips with the red visual cue. This simple manipulation of the environment helped slow down mindless snacking.

BRAND: Changing your habits is very difficult. Changing your environment is simple. Just the fact by taking your dishes and making them smaller, you're going to eat less. Very easy to do. You don't have to think about it on a daily basis, it's a one time thing. GUPTA (on camera): What about mindfulness in other areas besides

eating? Diction to screens, screen time, for example, comes up. Are there some lessons learned?

WANSINK: One of the things I'm stunned with in the last year we find is that people who say they have the largest -- who behave the best don't claim to have anymore will power than the rest of us. They claim to have basic rules of thumbs of some habits.

GUPTA: So, if it's not about will power, then why does it seem like some people can accomplish more in 24 hours than others? We're going to link habits and productivity. That's next.




GUPTA (voice-over): It's midmorning outside San Diego, California. On the base of Camp Pendleton, these Marine Corps recruits have been at it for more than 30 hours already. They are in the middle of the Crucible, the final 54 hours of boot camp.

[14:40:09] By tomorrow, if they make it through, they will officially be United States Marines. Along the way, and throughout all 11 weeks of their training, they are making new habits and breaking old ones.

CHARLES DUHIGG, THE NEW YORK TIMES: So, when it comes to breaking bad habits, one of the best ways to think about it is changing a bad habit.

GUPTA: Charles Duhigg is an investigative reporter with "The New York Times". He's also the author of the book the power of habit.

DUHIGG: One of the things we know from studies neurological studies is that it's almost impossible to completely extinguish the neuro pathways associated with a habit. So, what we have to do is we change the behavior by recognizing that we need -- the cues are still going to be there. We're still craving the reward, but let's find a new behavior we can insert that corresponds to the old cue and gives us a reward that's kind of similar to the old reward.

GUPTA: Charles spent years researching how habits are formed in our brains and how that influences our lives.

Remember all that advice about altering your environment? It's not just for eating habits. Here's another example.

(on camera): After the Vietnam War, G.I.'s came back we were stunned how many heroin addicts were returning from Vietnam. They found when these G.I.s, these soldiers when they came back to the United States, the recurrence right was actually quite low. Instead of close to 90 percent, it was closer to 5 percent.

And they realized these soldiers were not just heroin addicts, they were heroin addicts in Vietnam. And when they came back to the United States the environment changes and so did their likelihood of keeping up that bad habit.

Do we make up rewards or do we give ourselves rewards in order to break a bad habit or make a good habit?

DUHIGG: In general, the rewards that we find really rewarding, are ones that our brain decides almost without our input are rewarding. So, I can tell you after we go running I will give you some really yummy kale chips afterwards because that's a great reward. And your brain is going to know I'm a liar because kale chips are not yummy reward, right? What you really want is like a small piece of chocolate or smoothie or a nice long shower.

And similarly, the key to changing our own behaviors to becoming more productive is to find those rewards that we genuinely think are rewarding without having to talk ourselves into it.

GUPTA (voice-over): With everything going on in his busy life Charles was having a hard time managing his priorities. But it seemed like some people, leading seemingly busier lives than his were somehow more productive. And that piqued Charles' interest. It's also a subject of his new book, "Smarter, Faster, Better".

(on camera): What is the connection then between habits and productivity?

DUHIGG: Having the right habits makes productivity easier. In fact, many ways what we're trying to do with productivity is we're trying to create right mental habits. People who are being productive at making better decisions, what they tend to do is they tend to envision multiple futures. So, they tend to almost subconsciously think, I could have this for lunch, or this for lunch, or this for lunch. And what's the consequences of those three different things? They make much better choices as a result. That's a habit.

GUPTA: Is it triaged to keep up with the medical metaphor, is it triage saying there's a thousand things here I got to make choices, that means these are going to fall off the list?

DUHIGG: So, part of it is triage, and I think a better way of thinking about it is to take the things that really matter and put it at the top of the list, rather than saying I'm going to react to what life throws at me, to say, I'm going to proactively decide which ones I guess I care about. But part of it also is simply training yourself to make decisions faster and better.

GUPTA (voice-over): Do you find that writing information down by hand helps you focus more? It's true. It leads us to our next healthy habits tip. Taking handwritten notes, instead of typing them on a computer commits the information better to memory.

Charles says one of the best examples is a to do list. He's going to show me a technique for writing out lists called SMART.

DUHIGG: Here's how I do it. My stretch goal, overarching ambition is to run the marathon. Right. That's a big -- that's so overwhelming it's terrifying me thinking about it. Eight months away.

But then what I'm going to do is I'm going to break it into a SMART goal. This is just -- it's easy to remember SMART, you can use any system.

But what SMART means is that I'm going to figure out what specifically I want to do in the next week or the next month. And over the next month, what I want to do is I want to get up to being able to run consistently without getting exhausted about this.

And then I'm going to -- M stands for measurable. I need actually some type of measurement of this. What I want to do is not only run consistently, I want to be able to run seven miles without getting tired, without stopping.

So, then, A stands for achievable. Is it achievable? I think it is. I can four miles right now, right? Seven miles isn't that big a leap. So, I can definitely do that. But to do that I have to have more time in the morning in order to go out and go on practice runs.

Then we get to R, realistic. OK, is it realistic? The answer is yes, but I only get that time in the morning. If I talk to my wife ahead of time so that she can take care of the kids and get them to school two days a week so I can go on longer runs.

And then time line. I have identified that, right? What I want to do is over the next week, I want to figure out how to have more time to go running in the morning. Over the next month, I want to get up to running seven miles without having to take a break.

GUPTA (on camera): It's a big audacious goal but you've broken it down into a bite sized piece and have a plan on how to get there.

DUHIGG: This list might be a little bit uglier. It doesn't have things cross off quite as quickly, but it will make me more productive. And study after study shows if you write a to-do list the wrong way, it hampers you. Breaking it down this way and making a goal into a plan, that actually makes it more likely you're going to achieve it.

GUPTA (voice-over): For those marine recruits at Camp Pendleton, their immediate goal is making it through boot camp. There are things we can learn from their training. We're crossing the finish line of the Crucible, next.



GUPTA: Breaking bad habits is one of the interesting things psychologists have talked about for a long time. Let me give you a couple things. Whether it's breaking a bad habit or creating a good habit.

In the beginning, it's always sort of easy. It's the honeymoon phase. I can do this. I don't have to have ice cream every night. The problem is when you get to the first obstacle what you've got to do is what's called the fight through. If you fight through it two or three times you've got into the second phase of creating good habits and breaking bad habits.

[14:50:01] But even after the fight throughs, after you get through it a few times, you've got to get to the phase where it becomes secondary nature. It can take weeks, it can take days, it depends who you are. But when you get to that secondary nature phase, the habit has moved from a transient area of your brain to a more ingrained part of your brain. It just becomes part of who you are.


GUPTA (voice-over): For someone in the armed forces, training that becomes part of who you are can mean the difference between life and death.

Back at Camp Pendleton in California, these young men are in the middle of the crucible. It's a grueling test of endurance, strength, teamwork. For 54 hours, the recruits get just three meals, two periods of four-hour sleep and complete 24 obstacles simulating combat conditions. At the core of the training is a concept called Bias Towards Action.

DUHIGG: So, Bias Towards Action is how we generate motivation. A number of years ago they were trying to reform boot camp for marines. And one particular -- the guy who was running the marines, the guy named General Charles Krulak, read a bunch of research about locus of control.

All of us have an internal or external locus of control. We either believe we're in charge of our destiny or that things happen to us and we're powerless against them. To be motivated, to generate motivation, you have to believe that you're in control of your own destiny.

And by -- the way we teach people that is by teaching them a Bias Towards Action. When I see a problem, I go and solve it. When someone gives me an assignment, I don't how to do the assignment, I don't ask, I just do it.

My first instinct upon seeing any type of situation is to act, is to assert myself, because what I'm really doing is I'm proving to myself I have control of this situation, that I have control of what's going on. That triggers our sense of motivation within our brains.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In just a few hours, you'll have the opportunity to become a marine. You understand? First you have to show that you have what it takes, you understand that?

MARINES: Yes, sir.

GUPTA: Charles says studies have shown someone's locus of control can be influenced through training and feedback. The marines need to be a motivated group. Usually the first into a dangerous situation there's no time to wait around for orders. Decisions need to be made quickly and confidently.

So, they designed the Crucible in a way that forces recruits to think on their feet and take control.

Captain Nathan Tucker oversees Crucible training at Camp Pendleton.

CAPT. NATHAN TUCKER, FIELD COMPANY COMMANDER, CAMP PENDLETON: You know, in the military, you have to have a Bias for Action, right? You either take action and make something happen or you're going stand by and let something happen to you. As marines, you need to take action, take the initiative and, you know, take the fight to the enemy. That's what we like to do. I'll say that it starts from day one from them coming here.

GUPTA: This stage of the Crucible is known as 12 Stall. These stations are designed to test the recruits mentally, conditioning the brain to figure out how to execute an objective.

The only information the recruits are given is the end goal. The rest is up to them.

TUCKER: We have people come in from the East Coast, from the West Coast, from the North, from the South. And they all -- we all need to come together and work as a team.

And for that, we need base of ethos that we all understand and we can all talk the same language, because as you know, everybody's not raised the same. We need to be able to come together and work as a team in combat. It doesn't matter what kind of technology you have, what kind of science you have, at the end of the day, it's human will, all right? The human dimension.

And that's why the Marine Corp has put so much emphasis on the bias for action and our core values.

GUPTA: Time for our final healthy habits tip. You probably heard it takes 21 days to form a habit. But that's actually a myth. It really depends on the circumstances, the behavior and the individual. One study found it takes anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to form a habit.

For the marines, this training takes 11 weeks. If the Crucible is the culmination of that time, then a hike up what is known as the reaper, is the culmination of the Crucible.

The next morning, under a dense fog, the first group of recruits finishes the hike. The time all 400 recruits make it, the sun has started to rise.

It's here on top of this mountain that these young men graduate from training, and officially become United States marines.

[14:55:08] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: During the past three days, many of you have had to rely on your fellow recruit to find the strength to press on. Together you have faced the final challenge of recruit training. You now share a bond forged through hardship that cannot be broken. You have proven you deserve to be among America's warrior elite. You have done what many dare to try. You have earned a title, United States Marine.

Congratulations. And semper fidelis. Are we ready?

MARINES: Yes, sir.


MARINES: Yes, sir.

GUPTA: The recruits return to formation where they are given the emblem of the marines. The Eagle, Globe and Anchor. Emotions are high. They've done it. And along the way, they've learned to make decisions for themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've joined our storied and grand brotherhood. So, I invite you, my fellow marines, to join me in our marines hymn.



GUPTA: This idea of bias toward action isn't just for the armed forces. All of us can apply it in our every day lives. When you're mindful of your actions, then you're in control. It will motivate you to break bad habits and make good ones.

For VITAL SIGNS, I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.