In social marketing theory, the Ecological Model of Health Behavior is a framework that describes how individual beliefs and behaviors occur within a societal context. Therefore health promotion can often times be effective through changing the social environment that individuals or masses live within. With this, there is still much to be said about individual choices, personal experiences and history, age, education, socio-economic status, and even individual biology—all factors that influence our decisions regarding our health.
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview nutrition counselor Vaughn Gray to really delve into his success in reaching individuals, no matter their societal context, in order to help people to become healthier and happier.
Vaughn holds his bachelor’s degree in Biology and Philosophy from Amherst College and his master’s degree in Human Sciences from Oxford University where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. He has devoted his career to understanding the ways that all of us function as physical, mental, and emotional beings, and has helped people to make healthy decisions in their lives. Below you’ll find his personal responses to my questions on healthy behavior change.
Q. You have a holistic approach to overall health and well-being. Can you describe this?
A. Sure. I always tell people “Remember your MEDS—Mind state, Exercise, Diet, and Sleep.” The way that you eat, exercise, sleep, and think about yourself have a huge impact on your health and quality of life. My approach to wellbeing is understanding patterns within our own biology. Our DNA is built to thrive with healthy whole foods. Sugars, white flour, and processed foods are not what we are meant to eat. For example, if you take a polar bear and feed it bird food, it will not do very well. The same is true for human beings—we must live our lives the way our biology is designed.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about what you do to help people change their lives for the better?
A. I love giving seminar presentations, whether they are half day or full day presentations. I also teach teleclasses over three month time periods, which are conference-call based sessions. And of course, I find great passion in one-on-one counseling as well.
Q. Why is it hard for people to make positive healthy changes in their lives?
A. Often times, people eat well and exercise for the wrong reasons and they can’t maintain their healthy lifestyle. They want to be skinnier or look better, but these reasons aren’t inspiring. They need to focus on something that uplifts them – something with real possibility. I encourage a focus on physical and mental wellbeing that empowers a richer life rather than thinking about body weight or image. Most unhealthy behavior like poor eating or not going to the gym is driven by stress and negative emotion. Thinking we need to look better or fit some external ideal of perfection just adds fuel to the flame. We feel “driven” to lose weight for a week or two, and then undermine our own attempts. We need a different focus.
Q. How can individuals break unhealthy patterns and behaviors?
A. I tell people, “Pick something that inspires you as a motivator—and pick a change that is feasible for two weeks. Then tune into your emotions. Recognize that you emotionally feel ‘good’ when you do something that physiologically makes you feel ‘good’.” I tell people to be gentle with themselves and be kind to themselves. Walking or running can actually be a treat if you listen to your favorite music go to a peaceful setting to exercise in.
Q. Once someone is on the healthy-train and they fall off track, what, in your experience, motivates them to jump back on?
A. When you fall off the healthy train, you might have fallen off because of a reason you’re not aware of. This is an opportunity to look at your life and be honest and forgiving. Look at why you fell off track from an emotional perspective – what was the trigger? A certain kind of stress? Look for how you can live in a more forgiving way to yourself and others. Inner peace comes from not holding yourself and others up to insane standards and being understanding. This decreases stress, and makes staying on a healthy program a lot easier. Of course, it takes work to learn how to be easy on ourselves. Strange but true!
Q. In your work, how has awareness and education led to healthy behavior change?
A. In my experience, awareness and education can lead to healthy behavior change when they focus on changing perspective. Most people try to eat healthy out of fear. Fear can motivate us for a little bit, but is never inspiring, and only inspiration creates true change. When I am educating people about the importance of being healthy, I try to give people a sense of renewed possibility, and people are able to change their behaviors for the good in this context.
Q. What have you found successful in terms of inspiring individuals to change their behaviors in order to live healthier lifestyles?
A. The people who are able to address challenges in their lives and change their behavior in a healthy way are the people who are really able to listen to themselves. Feelings of guilt and failure do not motivate people to change. It’s the sense of love and acceptance of oneself that prompts healthy behavior change. You can learn to love and accept yourself, and it’s a fine art and science. It is every bit as challenging and rewarding as learning any other complex skill.
Q. Do you think that this sort of motivation is possible on a larger scale in the form of public health campaigns?
A. Absolutely. I believe we’re in the middle of a quiet revolution that is picking up speed. Media is focusing more and more on self esteem and self worth. The idea of “making yourself a priority” is becoming louder and louder. With these sorts of positive messages, it is absolutely possible to improve the health of a nation and the world.
Q. How important is prevention when it comes to chronic diseases?
A. Prevention is everything when it comes to chronic disease. The way you live your life determines your likelihood of chronic disease. While we all have some genetic patterns that can create a higher risk for a certain disease, we also have ‘good’ genes designed to keep our tissue healthy. When we don’t treat our bodies right physically or emotionally, the ‘good’ genes don’t function properly. Chronic disease is something that we shouldn’t have to worry about, but we need to treat ourselves right in order to prevent it.
Q. How can your success in reaching numerous individuals be applied to reaching millions of people across the United States?
A. Simple coherent messaging is important, and mass media is a powerful tool on top of grassroots movements and community programming. There is no one opposed to people being ‘more well’ and this is a place that we can find common ground. We need to recognize the bi-partisan nature of public health wellness efforts and support them at the local, corporate, and governmental level. This is critical to reaching all sorts of people across the United States.