Why Is it So Hard To Be Healthy?
Inactivity Negatively Impacts Health
Four facts that keep me thinking about health on a consistent basis are:
- An increasing number of us are overweight or obese
- The majority of people who lose weight will also gain it back
- The majority of us are getting insufficient amounts of exercise; and
- The majority of people who start an exercise program quit within six months
Physical inactivity contributes to 9% of premature deaths in adults.
Maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising regularly are two of four health behaviors (the other two being not drinking your face off and not smoking) that can extend a person’s life by over a decade.1
Mathematically, the odds of a person changing two behaviors is lower than changing just one, and the percent keeps getting smaller as more behaviors are added.
Still, the number is staggeringly low.
Only 4.8% of us perform all of these health behaviors. Stated otherwise, 95.2% of people have a poor diet, are insufficiently active, drink too much, smoke, or do some combination of the four behaviors.
Why Don’t People Perform These Health Behaviors?
I was recently at an interview for a new training job and my interviewee asked me why I train people.
It’s because we sell time. We can give people additional high quality years on their life so they can continue doing what they love to do.
The question of why; as in, “why don’t people perform these healthy behaviors” sits around in my mind a lot. The question of adherence also hangs out up there.
The environment exerts such a strong influence on us that it makes it challenging to be healthy. I would also say that most people lack an appropriate plan and a strong enough form of behavioral regulation.
We live in an ‘obesogenic environment’.
The term “obesogenic environment” refers to an environment that promotes gaining weight and one that is not conducive to weight loss. This environment helps, or contributes to obesity.
So, quite literally when we try to lose weight or exercise, we must fight against the environment.
Example: Imagine going to work, trying to get a project done but Jim, the cubicle invader, keeps barging into your office to talk about his weekly Tinder dates. Then, because he thinks it’s funny, he flips your desk too.
That’s what weight loss is like in our environment, keeping focus despite distractions and going back to work despite setbacks.
What to do Then?
Full disclosure, I don’t have all the answers. Everyone is different so a one size fits all answer would be a disservice. All I have is experience and a decent understanding of behavioral research.
So, what to do?
In my opinion, the best thing a person can do is to simply start.
That being said, as people start, there are things I would encourage them to do in regards to their behavioral regulation.
Whenever someone sets a goal, they have a motive.
Example: “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to gain 10 pounds of muscle” are both motives. They are a person’s WHAT and are a part of a person’s goals.
WHAT’s also have WHY’s
A person’s WHY is their form of behavioral regulation.
People can be extrinsically motivated or they can be intrinsically motivated.
Intrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity out of sheer enjoyment. But, let’s face it most people won’t always run, lift or eat broccoli for sheer enjoyment.
Within extrinsic motivation are four different categories. External regulation, introjected regulation, identified regulation, and integrated regulation.
Behavior Change is Like Battle
Recall, the obesogenic environment is programmed to make us fat. In order to overcome it, one must ‘fight’ against it.
Most behavioral theories discuss a motivational phase and a planning phase.
Motivational phases are the precursor for a planning phase. A person has to have some form of motivation to make a plan.
However, it certainly helps in the planning phase to have a strong form of behavioral regulation (why you are motivated to do a behavior).
Here’s how I think about it: when a person goes to battle, they have their own strengths as well as a weapon of choice.
Example: Thor doesn’t go into battle without his hammer (RIP Mjolnir) and Luke Skywalker doesn’t leave his lightsaber at home. These heroes also have their plan.
Luke Skywalker blew up the death star with a good plan (Thanks Rogue One) but gets his hand cut off when he takes on a challenge that is too big for him.
Think of motivational regulation as a person’s strength and think of the plan of attack as the strategy for success.
The more powerful your weapon (or the weaker the adversary), the less necessary a specific plan becomes.
If a person loves weightlifting (intrinsic motivation), they wouldn’t really need instructions to make a specific plan because nothing can stop them. Odds are they would make plans with no help.
Example: Superman wouldn’t need a plan to beat a common criminal. His strength is sufficient to just get the job done.
Strength and Plans
Any form of motivational regulation is enough to get a person started. However, there are some forms that are more likely to keep a person going.
If motivational regulation is closer to the extrinsic side, the challenge shouldn’t be made too hard. Barriers are likely to derail people like this.
Example: Luke Skywalker going to fight Darth Vader with a rubber chicken.
He’s going to need a damn good plan to win, and even then, it’s likely that he will get his other hand chopped off.
On the other hand, if a person wants to achieve a goal because the behavior is aligned with their life values (i.e. to be a better parent) that’s the same as going into a fight with the full use of the force and a lightsaber.
You still need a plan, but you’re better equipped to win.
Planning phases dictate specifically when, where and how a behavior is going to occur.
Example: if someone decides that eating more vegetables will be beneficial to their health, they should plan exactly when and where they are going to eat vegetables.
These plans are called implementation intentions. They link situational cues to desired behaviors.
Example: If a person wants to eat more vegetables they might say “when it is my lunch break I will have a bag full of baby carrots I brought to work”
I propose that a stronger motivational foundation when paired with specific planning will contribute to more favorable outcomes.
What to Do?
With a weak foundation (i.e. external or introjected) plans are more necessary but still not as effective as if they were based on a strong foundation (i.e. identified or integrated).
There are many reasons why people fail, but I consider behavioral regulation to be an especially important one.
Changing motivational foundations is challenging. A weight loss goal is great. However, as people go through the process, they should try to find activities that they love doing. For example, they could do the following:
- Try a variety of exercises and see which one makes you feel great
- Set a small goal: (1) do 1 pull up (2) do one perfect push-up (3) run a 5k (4) learn how to master a squat or a deadlift
- Learn to make new foods that taste good and are also healthy
- Try connecting your goal to a different value. Sure, losing weight will make you look better but it will also make you healthier, which means you will have a better time doing the things you love. Try making the link between your goal and life values.