Motivating Healthy Behaviour Change: Easter Edition
I am writing this for those of you who, like me, found themselves stuffing their face with
chocolate and other treats this past bank holiday. It is after the more indulgent holidays that most people find that they are unhappy with their current situation. Whether this is due to health, general fitness or an image people have of their ideal selves, a sudden motivation to change old habits and make new better ones arises.
The new year sees a third of Britons make new year’s resolutions ever year, yet most people struggle to make the initial steps towards change and thus, a value-action, intention-behaviour gap develops; that is, there is a disparity between the high value placed on things such as weight loss, being fit etc. and the low level of action people take to achieve them.
Obviously, the diet and exercise industry doesn’t make billions annually by telling people what they ACTUALLY need to do to change. How often have you heard the sentence “you just need to exercise and eat healthily”? Although, this statement is mostly correct, there is so much more to it. What makes this even worse is the amount of contradictions on what is considered to be healthy. This lack of information has resulted in a mass of ‘Yo-yo dieters’ who struggle to keep up the changes they make, because no one tells you how to!
Research informs us of a myriad of reasons why we can’t stick to change, as well as the steps we need to take to fill the gap between intentions and behaviour. Therefore, I am going to share with you what I have learned during my studies that I have found to work, especially when it comes to getting off the sofa.
- Surround yourself with the right people!
The theory of reasoned action proposes that that your behaviours are not only dependent on your own attitude but also on the social norms as defined within your social group. In other words, it makes it harder to change if your social activities are heavily built upon unhealthy behaviours such as drinking or smoking and the attitudes of those within your group are not supportive of change.
That does not mean to say that you need to get all new friends. A simple, yet effective change may just be joining a group or institution that values and is organised around facilitating the change that you want. A good example is AA (Alcoholics Anonymous); this organisation has been shown to successfully help masses of people struggling to give up alcohol and research has assigned a lot of its success to time spent with “individuals who support efforts towards sobriety.” I find this to be especially true in regards to my own transition. I do not believe that I could have continued to run, nor complete two half marathons by now without the support and motivation from my own #PsychRunners group.
- Don’t force it.
You don’t need to be a psychologist to know this one. At some point in life, you have been told you cannot have or cannot do something. It no longer matters if you even wanted to in the first place, but there is a sudden urge to attain what you have now been told is unattainable. The same is true if you tell yourself you cannot have something, or that you HAVE TO do something, like “you cannot have that piece of cake,” or “you have to go on a run today.” Reactance theory proposes that in telling yourself you have to or can’t do something, your freedom comes under threat and as such, you may perform the exact behaviour you have forbid in an attempt to regain that freedom.
I propose another way! ‘Nudge’ theory by Thaler and Sunstein offers an alternate to often unsuccessful methods of behaviour change; instead of forbidding choice, provide yourself with options. So, instead of telling yourself you cannot have that piece of cake, present yourself with healthier alternative that you might also find satisfying. In the same way, instead of telling myself that I must run today, I find it much more motivating to ask myself what route I would like to take.
To sum up: change is not simply about deciding that you want to, nor is it a simple case of making healthy choices and exercising.
- Distance yourself from those who may hinder your personal development or at least make connections where your goals are supported.
- Do not force change, give yourself options!
See you at the finish line!