Why can’t I change my health habits?
Earlier this year I attended a conference by Dr. Michael Vallis, registered psychologist and leader of the Behaviour Change Institute, who opened his session with the bold statement, “Healthy behaviour is abnormal behaviour.”
I was struck by the raw truth of this statement since to be a healthy weight is statistically abnormal given that more than 60 per cent of Canadians are overweight or obese. If you are currently eating well and exercising you are strangely abnormal.
Barriers to change
Our environment makes it easy and normal to eat junk food and maintain a sedentary lifestyle. It may sound easy and normal to eat enough vegetables each day, cut back on sugar and eat less greasy fast-food, but struggling to make change is actually indeed what is normal.
Part of the reason change is hard is because of the pleasure principle, which states that we are wired to approach pleasure and repel pain. If eating a healthy breakfast and packing your lunch for work means you need to get up a half hour earlier, this is likely to be painful while sleeping in is pleasurable. If the choice is a chocolate bar or a bag of chips versus raw veggies as a snack, again the pleasure principle makes it hard to choose the healthier option.
Change is also hard because we follow the path of least resistance. Modern technology and our time-starved, rushed lives make it hard for us to want to take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to run errands instead of driving and cook a healthy meal from scratch instead of going to a drive through.
Nutrition change is also incredibly hard since we eat for so many reasons, not just biologic hunger. Food and eating patterns change based on our environment, emotions, stress level, social situation, family ritual and income level.
We are also wired as humans to consider short-term gain over long-term consequences. The immediate gratification of an extra portion at supper or devouring sweet or savoury snacks in the evening, often trumps considerations about risk of diabetes or heart disease.
Moving towards change
If you have struggled to make changes to your lifestyle or eating habits you are not alone. Your ability to change is based on distress tolerance or being able to push through discomfort and all of the above barriers. You may find working through the following readiness questions with a psychologist or health professional trained in motivational interviewing helpful:
Step 1 – answer YES or NO (another word for no is “NOT YES”)
Do you view X as a problem?
Does X concern you or cause distress?
Are you interested in changing?
Are you ready to change now?
Unless you say YES to ALL OF THE ABOVE don’t expect change to happen easily. If the answer is NO don’t worry! Work towards change by overcoming barriers.
Why do you want to change?
How hard are you willing to work to change?
Are you willing to do the work now even if you don’t see the benefit?
Source: Behaviour Change Institute
Five attributes for sustaining change
Over the past 15 years of working with individuals and families on nutrition and lifestyle change,I have found five key themes that differentiate my clients of mine who have struggled with change (stuck strugglers), versus clients that have sustained change (shaker movers):