Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times featured a great article about behavior change entitled “Why are unhealthy people so reluctant to change their lifestyles?” In the article, Dr. Valerie Ulene, a preventive medicine specialist, examines just how much it takes for someone to adopt what she calls the three principles of healthy living: not smoking, five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, and regular physical activity.
Many would think that serious health events like heart attacks or cancer survival would be the wake-up call that facilitates the adoption of a healthier lifestyle, but several recent studies have said otherwise. For example, a Washington University study found that one year after a heart attack, 1,200 overweight men and women had lost an average of just 0.2% of their body weight. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology showed that just 1 in 20 cancer survivors were following all three principles of healthy living (although most had given up smoking).
Clearly, there’s more to adopting a healthy lifestyle than just a wake-up call. A third study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that physicians are lax in discussing lifestyle issues with patients following a diagnosis—just 1 in 3 were given diet recommendations, and 1 in 4 received physical activity advice. Less than half were asked about smoking. If doctors aren’t viewing health scares as wake-up calls, how exactly does someone get to the point where they’re willing to change?
According to the article, there are a few steps that lead up to a change of habits:
1) First, they must recognize that the benefit is worth the time and effort put into it
2) Then, they must prepare slowly by making small adjustments in their lifestyle
3) When they deem the small adjustments a success, they are ready to commit to change
Of course, committing to the change isn’t everything- it takes a lot of work to undertake and maintain a true lifestyle change. One thing this article did not mention is that even if people are fully aware of all of the benefits and steps to undergoing a change, if the healthier choices aren’t easy to make, they’re much less likely to choose them. I’m willing to bet that most people understand the importance of eating fruits and vegetables, but if they live in a food desert, spending an hour traveling to the grocery store is hard to justify when there’s a convenience store nearby, even if it offers only unhealthy options.
This is a place where effective communication can play a huge role in affecting behavior change. For example, if people are ready to make the small adjustments mentioned in step two above, they can be reminded that you don’t have to go to the gym to be physically active—taking the stairs or walking a few extra blocks is valuable as well.
What do you think—is there a way for health scares to be viewed as opportunities for behavior change?