By: Royer Cook, Ph.D.
Embrace Behavioral Strategies to Improve Your Health
In a recent blog, I described the powerful twin forces that are arrayed against us in our quest for a healthier lifestyle, internal forces rooted inextricably in our evolutionary history and external forces bombarding us relentlessly from the environment. Sounded pretty grim, didn’t it? Not to worry. As promised, in this blog I focus on the even stronger behavioral techniques that can defeat these negative forces.
The tools you need: Evidence-based behavioral strategies
We are exposed to an endless torrent of information about how to improve our health: A plethora of books, websites and classes offer specialized diets, from Atkins to South Beach, new exercise routines from Pilates to Zumba, and many more – all promising a healthy, new you. Obviously, you want to avoid the fraudulent quick fix (six-pack abs with no effort, concoctions that supposedly halt the aging process, etc.), but some of these regimens are rooted in good science and may actually work – at least for some people, for a while – and should not necessarily be dismissed out of hand. And yet it seems clear that the reason most people fail, sooner or later, at their attempts to live a healthier lifestyle is not that they lack information about a particular topic or technique; it’s because they haven’t mastered the behavioral strategies that are the keys to achieving and sustaining a healthy lifestyle. In thousands of studies published on behavioral health and preventive medicine (including several conducted by our team at the Center for Workforce Health), these strategies have been shown to be powerful weapons in the war against disease and disability. These behavioral strategies are not specific to any particular health topic, but are the keys to success in any health practice, from fitness to stress management.
Fortunately, these behavioral strategies are laced throughout the online programs that my colleagues and I have developed – and to which you now have unrestricted access. The presence of these proven strategies in our online programs – along with the rigorous empirical tests conducted on all our programs – should make you confident that despite the power of the forces arrayed against you, you can overcome these forces and succeed in your quest to live the healthy lifestyle.
You will find these tools in abundance as you proceed through our online programs, but here is a capsule summary of the main behavioral strategies and tools.
Goal Setting. Setting goals for yourself, making sure they are specific and realistic, is one of the most important keys to successful change. For example, your fitness goal could be a single, simple goal (“a 30-minute walk each day”) that might change as you progress, or it could be an ambitious goal (“run a marathon”) with a series of sub-goals along the way (e.g., gradually increasing miles run each week over 16-20 weeks) . For most people, simple is better.
Tracking Progress. Whether keeping track of minutes of activity or noting your dietary practices, keeping accurate track of your progress toward your goals can be an important part of health improvement. Knowing – with some degree of accuracy – where you are on the road to your goals will keep you focused and on track. There are now dozens of devices and thousands of apps that can make tracking easy, whether counting calories or steps taken. A cautionary word, however: Although these devices can help you track your health practices (with varying degrees of accuracy), remember that tracking progress is but one tool among many.
Behavioral Modeling. Watching and hearing how people like you have successfully adopted healthy practices can be a very effective way of changing your own health practices. This kind of “behavioral modeling” is both motivating – “if these people did it, then so can I” – and instructive – learning specific, effective techniques for managing weight, relieving stress, etc. The good programs should provide videos of ordinary people who describe their successes, but if they do not, such clips can be found on YouTube.
Support from Friends and Family. We all know from experience that making changes in our lifestyle can be difficult – though not impossible – without support from family and friends. The best type of support you can get from family and friends is the kind that is active, sincere and encouraging. But if that’s not possible (and it often isn’t), you will want to at least gain sufficient support (perhaps something closer to tacit approval than actual support) so that their actions and attitudes will not sabotage the changes you are trying to achieve. You can also gain this kind of support by going outside of your established social circles to join groups – either in-person groups or through social media – whose members share similar attitudes and goals.
Self-Efficacy. It may seem like no-brainer, and maybe it is: If you’re not confident that you will succeed at making an effective change, you probably won’t succeed. In fact, countless studies across a wide variety of health practices bear this out. Whether you’re trying to quit smoking, follow an exercise routine or manage stress in your life, a sense of self-efficacy – the feeling that you can do this – is often a key to whether you can make a successful, lasting change. But how do you get this feeling of confidence, particularly if you have failed at attempts in the past? Actually, there are several things you can do to maximize your self-efficacy, like setting realistic goals (small steps toward great goals) that maximize your chances of success, learning how people like you have succeeded (see “behavioral modeling”) – and more.
Planning and Self Regulation. Self-regulation is the “nuts and bolts” of health behavioral change – coming up with a realistic, fairly detailed plan that identifies the specifics of the changes that need to be made. For example, incorporating regular physical activity into your life requires setting up times and places for the activity, using reminders, anticipating potential barriers and planning ways to overcome them.
Finding Enjoyment. The enjoyment one gets from a particular health practice is a major determinant of whether you sustain a change over the long haul. And isn’t that one of the main issues? Starting a diet, joining a health club, taking the yoga class – these are the easy steps. Continuing the regimen over months and years – that’s another matter. And it just makes sense that the more you like the change, the more you are likely to stick with it. One of our favorite “real people” video testimonials in our web-based programs features a middle-aged woman who says (when asked how she has managed to maintain her exercise routine, “find something you enjoy, something that you can stick with.”
Overcoming Obstacles. Whether you’re trying to eat less, exercise more, reduce stress – or improve some other health practice – you can be sure that sooner or later (most likely sooner), you will be faced with obstacles that can undermine your plans and throw you off course. So you need to identify and plan for these obstacles and ways to overcome them.