Science & Research

Study looks at mindfulness effects on health education

Mindfulness training can help teenagers curb impulsivity, stick to diet, exercise plans

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2015

Health education class may be a staple of many high school curriculums, but the lessons do not always stick. Incorporating concepts of mindfulness into those classes may help students focus on healthy eating habits and exercise, according to an ongoing study by University researchers.

In the study, researchers from the Alpert Medical School and the University of Massachusetts Medical School aim to examine whether mindfulness training delivered in the context of regular health education classes can promote healthy living among ninth graders.

An outline of the study, “Commit to Get Fit,” was published earlier this month in the journal Contemporary Clinical Trials, but the research is ongoing. Data collection will be completed over the next two months and the final analysis will be finished by the end of the year, said Elena Salmoirago-Blotcher, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology and a principal investigator of the study.

Mindfulness training, Salmoirago-Blotcher said, involves “cultivating the ability to redirect your attention, thus becoming able to choose what you want to focus on.” The goal of the study is to ensure teenagers understand the importance of physical activity and healthy eating and do not get distracted from their goals, she said. The researchers hypothesize that mindfulness training will reduce impulsivity, so the teenagers can follow their healthy diets and exercise as planned, she added.

“By teaching (them) to stop and pay attention, they can learn to be better able to follow their plans and not act on their impulses,” Salmoirago-Blotcher said.

Salmoirago-Blotcher stressed that mindfulness is a tool and not a solution in and of itself, but that applying mindfulness to programs such as health education can improve their effectiveness. Adding mindfulness interventions to health classes serves as a “novel approach” to education, she said.

If the results of the study are promising, the researchers plan to design a larger efficacy trial involving more schools across different states, she added.

The researchers have formed partnerships with schools in the current trial, building on the 20-year collaboration between UMass Medical School Professor of Medicine Lori Pbert, the other principal investigator of the study, and local schools in Massachusetts, Salmoirago-Blotcher said.

Using a “cluster randomized trial” design, students in one school were assigned to mindfulness training in addition to the standard health education curriculum and will be compared to their peers in another school, who were in an “attention control” condition, meaning they received an equal amount of learning time but no intervention. The students’ physical activity and dietary habits were measured before the start of the study and will be measured again once the intervention is complete.

Michael Goldstein, adjunct professor of psychiatry and human behavior who was not involved in the study, said the intervention is an “innovative way to enhance health education and promote exercise and healthy eating among young people.” One potential downside is that it is currently unclear if the researchers can generalize their findings from schools in Massachusetts to adolescents everywhere, he said.

“It’s a good place to start,” Goldstein said.