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Vital Signs with Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Habit Formation Studies Assessed; Tips on Changing Habits to Improve Lifestyle Examined. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired June 11, 2016 - 14:30   ET



[14:30:10] DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: No matter how disciplined you might be, we all have them -- bad habits we want to break and good habits we want to me.

This is "Vital Signs." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Habits can become so engrained that we often don't even realize we're doing them. You can thank your brain for that, specifically the basal ganglia. At the neural level 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 on an impact your environment is having on your eating habits.

Does this look familiar? The TV is on. You're engrossed in a show and you have got snacks in your hand. Before you know it, all the chips are gone. In this age of binge watching, research shows that mindless eating is on the rise.

BRIAN WANSINK, AUTHOR, "SLIM BY DESIGN": Habits become so automatic to some extent that 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 a study. It's all the brainchild of Brian Wansink, professor, researcher, author. He's dedicated much of his career to observing our eating habits.

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 our research, that simply controlling your environment influences about 70 percent of what you eat on a regular basis. So simply having a fruit bowl sitting out on your counter within three feet of where you typically walk will lead to you eat a whole lot more fruit, actually about 70 percent more fruit than you otherwise would.

GUPTA: Brian and his team conduct most of their studies on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please have a seat.

GUPTA: That's where you'll find thei food and brand lab, set up to look like a kitchen in your home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In a moment we're going to watch an episode of "The Big Bang Theory."

WANSINK: What we can do, we can make small changes and figure out exactly what influences you, but, importantly, what can be done to turn things around.

GUPTA: John Brand is a post-doctoral research associate here. 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 watching your TV is that you're not actively paying attention to what you're eating. You're engrossed in the TV show or your reading your book, and so you just kind of mindlessly eat. And so what we try do today is we try to bring people's attention to how much food they're actually eating. And so if you dye every fifth chip red, just the fact of seeing that red chip will highlight the fact that you've already eaten 10, 15, 20 chips. And we know that doing that will decrease the amount of chips that people actually 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 we make who were 200 food related decisions every day. Those are habits won't even think about. Now, 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 to be really, really mindful and to think of every bite you eat and study nutritional labels. But for most of us, we have got a life going on. It's kind of hard to expect us to sit down and eat half a pea and ask yourself if you're hungry or not. It's a whole lot easier to just set up our environment so we end up mindlessly acting the right way. And all of our studies have been based on figuring out what trips us up, how can we change things that trip us up so that we can gleefully go through life, eat better, be happier without having it be a full-time job.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So at this point we're going to ask you to complete a survey.

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

BRAND: Changing your habits is difficult. Changing your environment is simple. So we know that 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: What about mindfulness in other areas besides eating?

Addiction to screen time, for example, comes up. Are there some lessons learned?

[14:35:03] WANSINK: One of the things that I'm stunned with just in the last year that we find is that people who say they have the largest -- who behave the best, don't claim to have any more willpower than the rest of us. They just claim they have some basic rules of thumbs or some habits.

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


GUPTA: 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. And there's still a long way to go. They are in the middle of the crucible, the infamous final 54 hours of boot camp. 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, AUTHOR, "SMARTER, FASTER, BETTER": So when it comes to breaking bad habits, one of the best ways to think about is changing a bad habit.

[14:40:02] Charles Duhigg is an investigative reporter with the "New York Times." He's also author of the book "The Power of Habit."

DUHIGG: One of the things we know from studies, we have neurological studies particularly out of MIT, is that it's almost impossible to completely extinguish the neural pathways associated with a habit. So what we have to do is we have to change that behavior by recognizing that we need -- the cue is 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 then it 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.

After the Vietnam War, GIs came back, and we were stunned at how many heroin addicts were returning from Vietnam. What they found was that these GIs, these soldiers when they came back to the United States, the reoccurrence rate was actually quite low. Institute of close to 90 percent it was closer to five 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 and so did their likelihood of keeping up that bad habit.

Do we make up rewards? Do we give ourselves rewards in order to make or break a bad habit or make a good habit? DUHIGG: In general, the rewards that we find are rewarding are ones

our brain decides almost without our input are rewarded. So I can tell you that if you go for a run, I'm going to 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 a yummy reward. What your brain really wants is small piece chocolate or a smoothie or a nice long shower.

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

GUPTA: 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 the subject of his new book, "Smarter, Faster, Better."

What is the connection then between habits and productivity?

DUHIGG: Having the right habits makes productivity much, much easier. And in fact many ways what we're trying to do with productivity is we're trying to create the right mental habits. People who are very productive at making better decisions, what they tend to do is they tend to envision multiple futures. So they 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 tend to make much better choices as a result. And that's really a habit.

GUPTA: Is it triage, just to keep up with the medical metaphor, is it triage, saying, OK, look, there are 1,000 things here, but I've got to make choices, and that means that these things are going to all fall off the list?

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

GUPTA: Do you find writing information down by hand helps you focus more? It's true. And 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. So my stretch goal, my big overarching ambition, is run the marathon. That's big. That's so overwhelming that it's terrifying to think of that. It's eight months away.


DUHIGG: But then what I'm going to do is take the stretch goal and break it into a smart goal. This is just easy to remember, smart, you can use any system. But what smart means is I'm going to figure out what specifically I want to do in the next week or the next month. Over the next month I want to get up to being able to run consistently without getting exhausted about this.

Then I'm going to -- "m" stands for measurable. I need 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 that achievable? I think the answer is yes, because I can do about four miles right now. Seven miles is not that big of 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 it's realistic, but I only get that time in the morning if I talk to my wife ahead of time so she can take the kids and get them to school two days a week so that I can go on longer runs.

And then timeline. I already sort of 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.

[14:45:06] GUPTA: It's a big, audacious goal, but you've broken it down into a more bite-size piece, and then you have a plan on how to get there.

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

GUPTA: For those marine recruits at Camp Pendleton, their immediate goal is making it through boot camp. And there are things we can all learn from their training. We're crossing the finish line of the crucible, next.


GUPTA: Breaking bad habits is one of those interesting things that psychologists have talked about for a really long time. Let me give you a couple things. Whether breaking a bad habit or creating a good habit, in the beginning it's always sort of easy, 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 have to do at that point is what is called the fight-through. If you fight through it two or three times, you've now gone from the honeymoon phase into the second phase of creating good habits and breaking bad bits.

But even after the fight-though, after you get through this a few times, you finally have got to get to the phase where it becomes secondary in nature. It can take weeks. It can take day. It depends who you are, but when you get to that secondary nature phase, the habit has moved to the more transient area of your brain to a more engrained part of your brain. It just becomes part of who you are. For someone in the armed forces, training that becomes part of who are you can mean the difference between life and death.

[14:50:09] Back at Camp Pendleton, 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 toward action."

DUHIGG: So bias toward action is about how we generate motivation. A number of years ago we were trying to reform boot camp for marines. And one particular, the guy who was running the marines, General Charles Krulak, read a bunch of research about locus of control. So it turns out that all of us have an internal or external locus of control, and depending which one we have, we either believe that we're in charge of our own 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 the way we teach people that is by teaching them a bias toward action.

When I see a problem, I go and I solve it. When someone gives me an assignment, I don't ask them how to do that assignment. I just go and figure out how to 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 that I have control over this situation, that I have control over what's going on. And 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?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But first, you have to show what it takes. You understand that?


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 a 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: In the military, you have to have a bias for action, all right? You will either take action and make something happen, or you're going to stand by and let something happen to you. As marines, you need to take action, take the initiative, and take the fight to the enemy. That's what we like to do. And 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you give us some lift from that angle?


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

TUCKER: We have people coming from the east coast, from the west coast, from the north, from the south, and we all need to come together and work as a team. And for that, we need a base of ethos that we all understand and we can all talk the same language, because, as you know, everybody is not raised the same. So 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, the human dimension. And that's why the marine corps has put so much emphasis on the bias for action and our core values.

GUPTA: Time for our final health healthy habits tip. You've 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 of 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. By the time all 400 recruits make it, the sun has started to rise.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, two, three.






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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: During the past three days, many of you have had to rely on your fellow recruits to find the strength to press on. Together you have faced the final challenge of recruit training. You now share a bond through hardship that cannot be broken. [14:55:00] You have proven that you deserve to be among America's

warrior elite. You have done what many dare to try. You have earned the title United States Marine. Congratulations and semper fidelis. Are we ready?




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 have learned to make decisions for themselves.

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


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

For "Vital Signs," I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.