More than a year after they completed an intensive healthy lifestyles class, participants continued to exercise more, eat better and have reduced risk of coronary disease, according to a Brigham Young University research project published in January's Preventing Chronic Disease, a journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers found in an 18-month follow-up that students who took the class had increased their vegetable intake by more than two-thirds of a serving and their fruits by a half serving.

For 84 percent of participants, cholesterol intake had declined and they were taking 800 more steps a day than when they enrolled. In fact, the group at that point continued to show improvements in 17 of 20 categories, according to lead author Ray Merrill, professor of health science at Brigham Young University. They had an average reduction of 391 calories and 23 fat grams a day and fiber intake increased 4 grams a day.

"Health education can work, as shown by this study," he said, "and it can be maintained over a long period of time."

The study was based on 348 volunteers who enrolled in a Coronary Health Improvement Project sponsored by Swedish American Center for Complementary Medicine in Rockford, Ill. Participants attended two-hour classes four nights a week for four weeks.

During those 32 hours, they they learned about improving diet and exercise and how much lifestyle choices like not smoking affect health. The class itself has had about 40,000 participants since 1988, available through work sites, churches and at the community level. After completion of the class, alumni could receive a newsletter and attend a monthly meeting to support continued healthy behaviors.

Early studies of short-term effects were very positive, but Merrill admits he wasn't sure they'd hold up for longer periods of time. In fact, they found many of the improvements in cardiovascular risk factors continued for the entire 18 months.

It was a randomized study in which class participants were assigned to start the class either in March or October 2003. Those who started six months later served as the control group. The researchers found strong intervention effects between the two groups in that initial period, as well, he said.

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