Why is Prioritizing the Healthy Choice So Difficult?
Why is it often so hard to do the right thing? To make the healthy choice instead of the more instantly gratifying one? To move instead of sit and scroll? There is, of course, no single answer to these questions. After all, the barriers, motivations and influences humans experience vary from person to person and context to context. But with so much information and advice available to us about how to be healthy, it almost seems absurd that so many choose not to follow it.
Of course, knowledge does not translate into behavior change. Think of it this way: Remember the old adage that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”? This represents our knowledge. We know an apple is a healthy nutritional choice. Eating the apple represents the behavior. But how many people effortlessly move from the “knowledge” dimension (an apple is healthy) to the “doing” dimension (eating the apple)?
Yet, when we compare some health-supporting choices with others, such as brushing our teeth or prioritizing other aspects of personal hygiene, those choices come easier. If you think about your clients, few, if any, overlook brushing their teeth at least once a day. So why do some health behaviors (those we know we “should do”) fall off the list first? Insights related to this topic are varied and interesting. To investigate this question, we asked two top industry professionals to weigh in.
Is it Environmental Influence?
We know that, according to the socioecological model, behaviors are influenced by a number of variables, including a person’s environment and “government regulations and supports.” Lawrence O. Gostin, a Georgetown University professor and global health lawyer, highlights these two factors in his published work.
“Pursing a healthy lifestyle is incredibly difficult in a society designed to incentivize the opposite set of behaviors,” explains Gostin. He notes that individuals see the value of engaging in physical activity, but their environment may preclude them from doing so. This might be due to a lack of walkability in their community, for example, or limited and/or unsafe playgrounds and open spaces.
Similar influences relate to a person’s dietary choices, as food manufacturers aggressively market highly processed foods that contain large amounts of saturated fats, salt, sugar and refined carbohydrates. Ingredients such as these are even found in what might otherwise be considered “healthy” foods, such as breads and yogurt.
Additionally, there’s also the issue of the “health halo,” which is a term given to subtle, but persuasive words or phrases listed on food packages or in advertisements. When a food label or packaged good boldly states that it is “organic,” “gluten free,” “reduced fat,” “fat free” or “natural,” consumers tend to believe that the food is either healthy or a healthier alternative to a similar product. The “health halo” has the power to seduce us into sabotaging well-intended efforts.
Are Humans “Wired” to Make Unhealthy Choices?
Certainly, environment plays a role, and it is important to help clients evaluate their environment for supportive as well as demotivational factors that shape their behavior. But are there other reasons why healthy habits are not prioritized consistently? Dr. Darian Parker, NSCA-CPT and owner of Parker Personal Training, LLC, points to two specific factors: human nature and a technologically developed society.
The reason some people don’t do more to support their health—even when they know they should—involves important issues that need to be acknowledged. “One is deep within our biological and anthropological origins as humans,” explains Parker. “We are working to overcome a very ancient mechanism that tells us to conserve energy for hunting, reproduction and general survival. Humans struggle with the concept of ‘health’ in its current form because we previously never had to do things for the direct purpose of improving our health. This was a natural part of our everyday living and continues to be a part of everyday living in current hunter-gather societies. While I’m sure being active for survival wasn’t pleasant, it was a necessity to sustain our species so the uncomfortable nature of it was tolerable.”
While we are battling our primal survival nature, we are also living in a society that is highly advanced. “The technological innovations of the internet and subsequent and coming technologies has and will continue to erode the activity out of living and create increased levels of convenience and comfort for humans,” argues Parker. “This has made being physically active for health more important than ever, but has also made it harder than ever for humans to create and maintain a sustained lifestyle of physical exertion. We have many more comfortable and pleasurable options as humans right now and, more often than not, people will choose conservation of effort and comfort over healthful-based activities if one’s health is not in any immediate jeopardy.”
In other words, the prospect of developing a disease or disability someday in the distant future is not enough to steer many people away from taking the path of least resistance.
Is it Psychological Reactance?
Beyond environment and human nature, the reason some may not do what they know they should do to benefit and sustain their health could be related to the way goals are approached and set.
“Sometimes when people set new goals, it involves restricting their behaviors (e.g., avoiding a particular food item or reducing the amount of time spent on digital devices), explains Sabrena Jo, PhD, Mayo Clinic and ACE Certified Health Coach. “Restriction may lead to a phenomenon known as psychological reactance, which is an unpleasant motivational arousal that emerges when people experience a threat to, or loss of, their free behaviors. As a result, they might enact efforts to restore their perceived loss of freedom.” As a result, individuals might feel more compelled to “dig their heels in” to preserve their freedom of choice in their behaviors.
Is it Rigid Goals?
Humans need flexibility in all aspects of their lives. Flexibility allows us to adapt to the shifting dynamics of the day-to-day responsibilities we balance. As Dr. Jo highlighted, rigidity and restriction can lead to a feeling of loss of freedom. To overcome this, goal setting and goal behaviors need to be approached in the context of real life and allow (and encourage) some flexibility so that we can adapt to our ever-changing circumstances throughout the day.
Consider this example: “Instead of your client telling themself that they ‘must’ walk for 30 minutes on a given afternoon, they might say that they ‘can’ go for a walk,” suggests Dr. Jo. “And if their schedule gets in the way, they could consider doing a relaxing yoga sequence at home later in the evening. Ultimately, setting goals is important, but allowing for some flexible options to accommodate the dynamic nature of life may improve a person’s chances of achieving them.”
Dr. Jo’s reflections highlight how important it is to understand how a client’s desired goal aligns with their personal values. “Figuring out why a client wants to achieve a particular goal will help them maintain the effort to achieve it when life gets hectic. It’s still challenging, but consistently reminding oneself of how achieving a goal will result in a better future version of oneself may counteract some of the resistance they may be experiencing.”
Is it the Language We Use?
In addition to the concept of psychological reactance Dr. Jo introduced, another element that influences motivation and adherence to health-supporting habits that relates to the way we talk to ourselves. Self-talk plays a significant role in the ways in which an individual may feel motivated or not. The roots of neuroscience confirm that the brain is wired for the negative and to react in that way.
“When thinking of our goals, specific words may cause us to negatively react,” says Dr. Jo. “For example, terms such as ‘should, ought, must and need’ may be perceived as controlling and can strip away our autonomy. Using non-forceful self-talk, such as ‘consider, can, could and may’ when it comes to enacting a goal-oriented behavior may help.” Dr. Jo acknowledges this approach may seem counterintuitive, especially since we urge our clients to use very straightforward language when crafting their goals. However, practicing non-forceful self-talk could help your clients feel more motivated or empowered to make the healthy choices that move them closer to their desired goals.
Is it a Combination?
Human behavior, especially health-related behavior, is far more complex than it appears at a surface glance. Even as our knowledge of science and technology expands, we have only a fractional understanding of the human body and human behavior.
To put it simply, there isn’t one single factor that can be identified as the primary influencer. What influences behaviors and a person’s motivation to engage in a current behavior or adopt a new one is multifactorial and, like a client’s goals, individualized and aligned with the context of their reality.
Relating to Clients More Intentionally
As health coaches and exercise professionals, we may not experience many of the same struggles with change or adherence to our health-supporting habits as do our clients. We are already actively engaged in what could be considered a maintenance stage of change. Of course, we are not immune to disruptions in our daily habits, whether due to injury, illness or other life events that trigger a lapse in behaviors, moves us back to a previous stage of change or creates inconsistency, but these periods are usually temporary. So, what can we do to better relate to or understand what our clients experience when they do struggle?
First, there’s a significant amount of cognitive work that goes into improving an individual’s readiness to change, which includes eliciting autonomous motivation and building self-efficacy. Acknowledging that “the struggle is real” from the beginning of the journey is half the work. What we can do with our clients, in addition to the tools we already use, such as motivational interviewing, self-monitoring techniques and decisional balance, is sink deeply into the information and research surrounding growth mindset, positive intelligence and neuroscience (to better understand how the brain is naturally wired for the negative).
Here are three resources to help get you started:
- Who Owns the Ice House by Clifton L. Taulbert. This true story narrative is not related to health and exercise, and that’s a good thing. Instead, it offers powerful insight into the challenge of change and choice and the growth mindset. It is also a great small business resource.
- Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine. This resource dives deeply into the power of the mind and how we can be “hijacked” by our negatively wired brain.
- Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD. This book offers insight into the transformative power of exercise on the mind, stress levels, mood, intellect and other aspects of mental health.
Successfully coaching a client through any struggle involves understanding the why behind the struggle, which is most often captured in the mind of the individual rather than due to a physical or tangible barrier. Relating to clients more intentionally involves really understanding the client’s mindset (what makes them unique), their personal values and why they want to achieve a specific goal, along with using kinder self-talk, might just be the key to success, for both you and your clients.
Expand Your Knowledge
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