Guest Author: Tom Vinciguerra
In the modern world, lifestyle change is hard work. It’s so hard, many people never manage to make these changes and their health suffers as a result.
There are a number of forces working against you, most of which are never considered or discussed. Today we’re exploring three of these factors.
Let’s get started.
Your surroundings have a powerful impact on how you behave. Your environment is influential because it makes a behaviour more or less easy to engage in. When something is easy we’re more likely to do it. When a behaviour is hard to engage in, the opposite is true.
Let’s take the example of walking. In the suburbs, where a car is required for most basic tasks (e.g. getting to work, going shopping), we have to schedule exercise into our day. We walk in the mornings or after work, for example. But in the inner city, where we live in close proximity to where we work and shop, walking is often the main source of transport. In this environment people can fit in regular amounts of physical activity as they go about their day, without having to schedule it. As a result, physical activity in these inner city environments tends to be higher.
This comparison between inner city and suburban areas is obviously not true in all cases. But our urban environments do impact our levels of physical activity. A study by UWA, for example, found that the amount of parkland in Perth suburbs is strongly associated with the level of overweight and obesity in these areas. Higher levels of parkland meant lower rates of obesity; the more parks, the easier it is for residents to exercise in a pleasant and safe environment.
Our surroundings also include our homes and workplaces, and these too have a powerful influence on behaviour.
To illustrate this point, researchers filled up glass dishes with chocolates, placing them in three locations in an office environment over a three week period. In the first week the bowl of chocolates were on the corner of the secretaries’ desks, the next week they were placed on top of a cabinet two metres from the desk, and in the third they were in the secretaries’ desk drawer.
As you can imagine, when the chocolates were conveniently located on the desk, secretaries ate more – nine chocolates a day to be exact. When the chocolates were moved to the desk drawer the number went down to six; and when most inconveniently placed on the cabinet, the number eaten each day went down to four.
When food is easily accessible, we eat more of it. When our surroundings hinder our ability to move, we move less.
But this is not excuse.
You can use this knowledge to change the environments you do have control over. Instead of having treats in plain view – at home or at work – stash them out of sight in high cupboards that are hard to reach.
The key message is make healthy eating and exercise as convenient as possible and eating unhealthy foods and sitting on the couch as inconvenient as possible.
In 2007, researchers from Harvard declared that obesity spreads through our social networks. The researchers looked at data for more than 12,000 people over 32 years and the results were startling.
Your chance of becoming obese increases by 60% if you have a friend who is obese, or becomes obese. Likewise, if your spouse gains weight over a given time period, you’re 40% more likely to put on weight too.
So how do our friends and family have this effect on us?
Well, when it comes to eating we unconsciously use the behaviour of others to guide how much and what we eat. If a friend orders mains and dessert, we’re generally going to do the same.
A French study recruited people to supposedly watch a movie and provide feedback on its themes. The real intent of the study, however, was to examine how the eating behaviour of people near the participants affected their food intake. The study found that participants who ate more and chose larger portion sizes were following the lead of people sitting near them who also ate similar large portions.
Obviously you don’t choose your family, and dumping your friends because they don’t eat the way you like isn’t great, so solving this problem can be tricky. But there are solutions. Be the change you want to be and you can start rubbing off on people around you. If you go out to dinner with friends, order first so you’re not influenced by their ordering choices. You can even try to identify your friends and family that eat in a way you don’t like, then avoid these people at meal times or come prepared with an eating plan (i.e., I’ll only eat a main, no desserts; no entrees).
Have you ever found yourself doing something without much awareness of how you started? Maybe you drove to work and couldn’t remember the journey, or you found yourself eating a bowl of chips, even though you told yourself yesterday was the last time.
This unconscious, seemingly automatic flow of behaviour is a habit in action. A habit is a set of behaviours your brain has put on autopilot to make sure it’s operating as efficiently as possible.
Let me explain.
When you keep doing the same thing (e.g. having an ice-cream) in the same situation (e.g. after dinner) and it produces positive results (e.g. pleasure, relaxation), your brain automates the behaviour so you don’t have to make the decision again. It assumes your response is a good one and it should be continued indefinitely.
Without habits our lives would tiring. Everyday tasks like tying our laces would require significant concentration. So, generally speaking, habits are a good thing. But, it’s important to realise that our brains don’t differentiate between a habit that’s good for us and a habit that’s bad. What’s more, once a habit has been formed it’s there for life.
When it comes to lifestyle change this is a problem because habits lock us into patterns of harmful behaviour (e.g. eating ice-cream every day) that overrule our goals and best intentions.
But, you can conquer your habits with persistence and by using the following strategy.
- Define your habit – pinpoint the behaviours involved in your bad habit. Avoid broad descriptions like “eating too much” or “not working out enough”, and zero in on everything that makes up your bad habit.
- Discover the trigger – Although habits are triggered by a specific situation, this exact situation is not always obvious. The most common triggers are a time (e.g. mid-afternoon), place (e.g. the office), people (e.g. our drinking buddies), mood (e.g. depressed or bored), a preceding action (e.g. receiving an email), and/or a physiological state (e.g. being hungry or tired).
- Action planning – Once the trigger(s) has been identified, you need to create some action plans for the behaviours you are going to substitute in place of your habit. An action plan needs to be specific and follow a format something similar to this: If X situation occurs, then I will do Y
So now that you know how your surroundings, your social network and your habits influence your behaviour, you’re a few steps closer to making long-term lifestyle changes. But to change you’ll require persistence, patience and grit. I’ll be back in a few weeks with some time-tested tips and tricks to help you build this resilience.
Until then, take care.
Author: Tom Vinciguerra
Tom is a psychologist and the founder of Smart Habits, an online digital health platform that combines evidence-based health and online weight loss coaching, with data-driven insights from wearables and smart devices. If you want to read more of Tom’s stuff, you can follow Tom on twitter or check out Smart Habits.