When I was younger I was encouraged and given every opportunity to play basketball. My parents put me in camps and had me join travel teams. My neighborhood was on a small loop and I had several neighbors that were my age. When school let out we had a safe place to play outside every single day, often for hours. When I started getting into exercise outside of sports my dad took me to the gym.
I’m lucky, I had a lot of positive reinforcement for physical activity and every opportunity in the world to be physically active.
Behavior needs to be understood as part of a large system; individual, social, and environmental factors are going to have an impact on what a person does. Outside of individual factors (i.e. personality, motivation) understanding health behavior requires knowledge of the environmental and social context in which the behavior occurs.
I am of the belief that anyone can improve their fitness, whether that is a measure of body composition, strength, or aerobic endurance. However, there are certain situations that can make change harder for one person compared to another.
What is Working Against You?
If you have a health or fitness goal, there can be a lot working against you. Think about it like this, you’re in a hole and you need to get out of it to reach your goal. If the hole is 1 foot deep, no problem you just step out of it. But if the hole is 10 feet deep there is almost no way you’re going to get out of it without help.
Each barrier that you have can deepen the whole. Some barriers are self-imposed (i.e. drinking too much, almost all eating habits are to some extent self-imposed) while others are not your fault (i.e. your parents/upbringing and the built environment). Regardless of fault, if you have a health goal it is completely within your control to change and if necessary find someone to help you.
Barriers that can make your hole deeper can be lumped into environmental, social, and individual factors.
Two weeks ago, on my way back to Boston I stopped in Albany to see my friend Britt. She works at a health and fitness recreation center. Outside of the facility is a 3-mile-long loop around a neighborhood that ends right next to a pond. It was quite nice and there were lots of people walking or running on the loop.
Just the other day I was in Long Beach Long Island visiting a friend. He’s right by the ocean and half a mile away from an enjoyable run on the boardwalk. The point is, it is exceptionally easy to be physically active especially with decent weather.
Not everyone has this kind of easy access to physical activity. If someone lives in a dangerous neighborhood, odds are they won’t be out running or even walking if they don’t have to.
This isn’t to say that people cannot join an affordable gym to exercise but walking is one of the easiest forms of physical activity. It requires no money and no skills. The exercise environment is hard to change. On the other hand, home eating environments are easy to modify.
In terms of unhealthy food, here is an easy rule to follow; if it is accessible and available you’re probably going to eat it. If I walked out of my room and there were cookies on the kitchen table I’m probably going to eat one no matter how strong my willpower is.
On the other hand, if it’s in a cupboard and covered with tinfoil I might be less likely to do so. I think the best rule of thumb is to simply not let this food into your house. If it is there, you’re going to eat it. I recommend buying 1-2 servings of whatever junk food you like when you’re at the store and limiting yourself to that for the course of the week.
If you can identify barriers that are built into your environment I think you’ll be able to find some simple solutions. This isn’t so much the case with social environments.
In 2007 James Christakis and James Fowler published a paper that has since been sited over 4,500 times on the role of social networks on obesity. Essentially, if people within your social network become obese you’re more likely to become obese.
It makes logical sense if you have friends that engage in obesity-related behaviors (i.e. they don’t exercise, drink too much, and eat too much) you will be more likely to do the same. It’s challenging enough to get fit, it doesn’t help when your best friends drink beer and order pizza three nights per week. We form friendships around behaviors, some constructive, and others are destructive.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a friend who doesn’t peer pressure to eat like they do or drink as they do. The good part is that if you want to make healthy changes you can enter a healthy social network. This is where I see small studio gyms that foster community shining. The only downside with the smaller gyms is cost. However, if you’re looking for results the biggest cost is often payment without results.
I’ve written for the PTDC on social environments and how to avoid peer pressure to be unhealthy here.
I’ve saved this for last because change is 100% on you. Remember you’re the one that needs to get out of the ‘hole’. Often, behavioral theorists (they’re not wrong) think that change works like this. The action happens when (1) people identify a discrepancy between their current and ideal selves (2) they work up motivation and (3) they execute a plan.
The challenging thing is that motivation doesn’t last. But the good thing is that motivation is not necessary for behavior. You can just do it. I’m sure we’ve all thought of times when we’ve done things we didn’t want to do simply because we knew we had to do it.
If you think of your health and fitness as a responsibility (as you should) it is something you just must do. Many theories posit that people engage in behaviors when they are confident that they can do something. This confidence entails that we lack the fear of failing, so by default we don’t do things we think we might fail at.
I’m not sure when in our lives this ‘fear of failure’ came to be but if we lived like that since birth the world would be a different place. No one walked the first time they tried. No one could read an entire book the first time they learned about words and we all know the first time you drove was with your parents in a parking lot, not on a highway. So, the necessity of having confidence before acting is something that we must have learned. The only way to improve is with feedback about errors and practice. Being healthy is a skill and it is a skill that you are solely responsible for.
There are certainly a lot of things that can work against a person becoming healthy. Knowledge of these things can help with change efforts but in the end, it is on the person to make plans to overcome challenges and if necessary reach out for help.