By Liz Massey, Feb. 12, 2015.
The gym veterans who stand outside the workout rooms early in the year waiting for newcomers to fall off the exercise bandwagon aren’t just being cynical.
Statistics are not on the side of those who set health-related resolutions: according to researcher John Norcross of the University of Scranton, only eight percent of those who make resolutions fulfill them by year’s end. Nearly half of wanna-be healthy eaters and exercisers drop out within six months.
However, those who study what motivates people to behave in health-enhancing ways say there is a magic bullet when it comes to success in this area: tapping the power of habit. More than 40 percent of our daily activities are the result of habit, according to a Duke University study.
THE POWER OF TWO
There are specific steps that health experts advise for changing habits, but one of the most powerful influences on one’s health habits can be the loved one who sits across from us at the breakfast table each morning.
Most contemporary health advice is aimed at heterosexual married couples, who, by and large, have a male partner with less-than-stellar habits and a female partner who acts as a “health expert” and badgers her man to clean up his act. But same-sex couples have a different dynamic in this area – one that can be positive or negative, depending on the situation.
According to Corrine Reczek, an assistant professor of sociology and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at The Ohio State University, gay and lesbian couples tend to start out with more similar interests than their straight counterparts, and this leads to both parties in the relationship influencing each other’s health behaviors. She reported in a study published in 2012 that the level of mutually reinforcing health behaviors was 80 percent for gay couples and 86 percent for lesbian couples, while it was only 10 percent for opposite-sex couples.
But “mutually reinforcing” doesn’t always mean “optimal,” she noted.
“Gay men and lesbian women also encourage unhealthy habits in tandem,” Reczek said. “When one partner brings home ice cream, both will eat it together.”
For LGBT couples where one person is farther along in their fitness goals than the other, she noted that gentle encouragement toward better behavior was far more effective than a critique of present behaviors. And for queer individuals whose partners have no interest in bodily self-improvement, it’s still possible to tap the power of social ties to encourage healthy habits.
“Community is essential to healthy behavior,” she said. “Find a friend or a group that focuses on health and well-being, and you are much more likely to be healthy together.”
THE STREETS WHERE YOU LIVE
If the person you spend the most time with has an impact on your health habits, what about the physical environment in which you spend most of your time? Marc Adams, an assistant professor of exercise science and health promotion at Arizona State University, said that the design of a neighborhood makes a difference in how much people walk, and that impacts their overall fitness level. He added that research consistently shows that people living in highly walkable neighborhoods are more active – regardless of the weather, their income or their level of educational attainment.
“Over the last 80 years, cities have been designed to move cars efficiently at the cost of other modes of transportation, such as walking and cycling,” he noted.
While the Valley is somewhat notorious for having areas that are car-centric, it also has other sections where it is fairly easy to open the door and start exercising. Adams suggested that fitness buffs visit the website WalkScore.com to see how their immediate neighborhood rates for walkability. He also said two other easy ways to work exercise into daily life in Phoenix were to use the new Grid Bikes bicycle sharing program that’s linked to the Valley Metro light rail system – in which the public can rent a bike at a light rail station, use it to reach their destination, then return it to another Grid Bike stand later – or to use one of the metro area’s many hiking trails, many of which begin in suburban neighborhoods.
Another factor in making healthy living a habit is getting the right feedback when starting out. Adams has been researching the effectiveness of providing “adaptive” feedback to exercisers via text messages. The problem with traditional “static” feedback about what to eat or how to exercise is that they don’t consider the individual, especially if she or she is a beginner, and his or her unique circumstances.
“Static interventions are unrealistic, not because the ultimate target is wrong, but because the path to promoting a regular routine doesn’t consider life events — people get sick, need to work late or study for an exam, care for children, or have a million other things going on,” he explained. “Additionally, people cannot adapt physiologically or psychologically to this target overnight, and this leads them to feel like they have failed.”
Adaptive feedback draws personal exercise data from a participant’s cell phone app or FitBit device to provide advice for them that is tailored to what they need in the moment.
“Static, impersonalized feedback is boring and ineffective; it just doesn’t work. Adaptive feedback aims to provide reinforcement of just the right type, in the just the right amount, and at just the right time to improve physical activity,” Adams said.
CHANGE IS POSSIBLE
Despite the gloomy data noted at the beginning of this story, researchers who study motivation and health behaviors encourage their audiences to be optimistic, if also realistic, about their chances of making new habits a permanent way of life.
“Believe that it (habit change) can be done,” said Norcross, in a 2012 interview with Time. “There’s a lot of cynicism surrounding New Year’s resolutions and it’s unwarranted. … The success rate is much higher than most people presume it would be for a single attempt to change behavior.”
Adams said those attempting to form healthier habits might want to take a step back and look at their lives in a larger context than just “exercise” and “diet.”
“Everything counts,” Adams said. “For a quick boost in your routine, purchase an inexpensive pedometer, invite a friend to walk with you, do a little yoga or gardening, or take public transportation to work or your next night out, if possible.”
3 steps to changing a habit
According to Charles Duhigg, author of the 2014 book The Power of Habit, habit formation boils down to understanding the three key elements that drive any habit – bad or good. He says that “the habit loop” consists of:
1. A cue, which is a trigger that sets your habit in motion;
2. A routine, which is the activity that’s become
3. And a reward, which is a specific pleasurable sensation that your habit ultimately provides.
Duhigg emphasizes that it’s nearly impossible to extinguish a bad habit – it’s better, he says, to substitute a new routine (habit). Ideally, this activity should have the same cue and provide the same reward as the old habit. It can take some experimentation to find new/good habits that truly replace the old/bad ones.
For example, if at 3:30 p.m. each day (cue), you eat a cookie (routine), for example, it might be because you’re hungry and need a healthy snack, you’re bored and need to do something different, or because you’re lonely and need to talk to a friend whom you meet at the snack bar. Each type of reward would require a different type of new routine to provide the right result.
Duhigg suggests that a habit-changer’s chances of success will be increased if they write out a plan, with a formula that reads:
“When (cue) happens, I will (perform my routine), because it provides me with (reward).”
For more on Duhigg’s findings in “The Power of Habit,” visit charlesduhigg.com/the-power-of-habit.