University of Otago researchers have found that non-dieting interventions to improve overweight and obese women’s health and wellbeing have a longer-lasting effect if they include relaxation training.
The finding is from a two-year follow-up of a groundbreaking Otago research project into the effectiveness of non-dieting intervention programmes in improving lifestyle behaviours and reducing psychological distress and medical symptoms.
In the study, 225 women with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 28 or more were randomly assigned to one of three intervention programmes. All three 10-week-long programmes assisted women in moving their focus away from calorie counting and body weight, towards sustainable lifestyle changes that enhanced their wellbeing, regardless of weight loss.
The results from the one-year follow-up were published last year in the American Journal of Health Promotion.
Study coauthor Dr Caroline Horwath of the Department of Human Nutrition says that, despite giving up dieting, women in all three interventions had successfully prevented any weight gain over the two-year period, which is a promising outcome for a group at high risk of weight gain over time.
"However, the most striking result was in the non-dieting intervention that also included intensive training in techniques to elicit the body’s relaxation response. At the two-year mark, these women were the only ones to maintain the psychological and medical symptom improvements they showed at the end of the first year," she says.
Stress and negative emotions can trigger women to overeat and consume high-fat and high-sugar foods, Dr Horwath says.
"By learning and practicing relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, abdominal breathing and visualisation, as part of a wider lifestyle change programme, women have effective tools to manage stress and emotions without resorting to unhealthy eating," she says. These techniques were adapted from a Harvard Mind-Body Medical Institute programme.
Although weight loss was not a goal of the study, women who reported still regularly practicing these techniques at the two-year mark also had an average weight reduction of 2.5 kg at the end of this period.
Dr Horwath says that while this finding did not involve enough of the study participants to be statistically significant, it was obviously a very pleasing result for the women involved.
"This study is the first randomised trial to evaluate the effects of intensive training in relaxation techniques in a lifestyle change programme for overweight women. The positive results are exciting, given the limited long-term success of traditional dieting approaches."
The latest findings appeared in the US journal Preventive Medicine.
(Source: University of Otago: Preventive Medicine: January 2009)