When presented with information about their health and the changes they need to make to their lifestyles, what exactly motivates people to make these changes? Well, the fear of death is a great motivator for change. Frequently, after patients suffer a heart attack for example, they begin to make changes in their life. They may quit smoking and improve their diets. However, it’s also not uncommon for people to lose their motivation to continue these changes. They may return to smoking or gradually return to their poor eating habits. Does this sound familiar?
Are there certain factors that help people stay committed to the changes they make? There are twenty-one commonly studied theories and models that explain how certain feelings and beliefs can contribute to healthy behaviors. The following basic themes and concepts of these theories will help you identify what motivates you and how you can stay committed to healthy behaviors.
This concept refers to whether or not you believe you’re going to get sick in the first place and if you accept your diagnosis. That is, what are your beliefs about your own susceptibility to developing an illness or disease? Do you deny the impact of your behavior (smoking, weight, stress) on worsening or contributing to your illness?
Obtain accurate and specific information from your doctor.
Often patients will claim that the doctor never specifically said that their smoking or their diet can cause damage or disease. This miscommunication may be due in part to the patients not asking direct questions because then they can assume if it wasn’t directly stated, than it must not be that serious.
Objectively evaluate the information you are given about changes in your lifestyle. We are often very comfortable giving advice to other people we care about. We can easily say, “You really shouldn’t smoke”, or “You need to better manage your stress.” However, when it comes to us the advice is often lost. Although you may be able to say to yourself. “I really should be exercising”. You may also follow-up up with excuses that give you permission to continue with the behavior. It is important that you listen objectively to what you are saying to yourself and then correct that self talk.
Beliefs about Immediate Benefits
We are unlikely to change our behavior unless we believe that there will be an immediate benefit to our health. Telling somebody to monitor the amount of saturated fats in their diet when they are not currently experiencing any medical concerns is unlikely to yield a change in behavior. Behavior change needs to be anchored to improvements that can be experienced now.
Visualize yourself benefiting from the changes. If you are quitting smoking or improving your diet, visualize your arteries with blood flowing freely without the clogging effects from unhealthy behaviors. Imagine your heart pumping at a regular comfortable rate without having to work so hard.
Remind yourself that you are making the right choices. For example, tell yourself as you exercise that you are lowering your cholesterol, keeping your weight down, and improving the overall functioning of your heart.
Beliefs about the Costs of Making a Change
When we are confronted with information about our health and the changes we need to make, a couple of thoughts usually come to mind. First, we begin to weigh the benefits of eating a healthy diet versus the loss of eating whatever you want. For example somebody who perceives that the benefits of eating a healthy diet includes marginally improving heart health but the cost of changing the diet involves depriving self of “good foods” is “expensive’ and an inconvenience to family” is unlikely to stay motivated. The cost of the change clearly outweighs the benefits.
How do you view changes that you need to make in your life to improve your health? Try to do a cost-benefit analysis for yourself. Notice the language that you use and then honestly assess how real you believe the health risk of is for you and what cost you perceive yourself having to pay for your health.
Do you listen to a health message and find yourself acknowledging that while it makes sense, deep inside you’re thinking, “I could never really do that”?
Confidence is built when we are able to have several small measures of success in high-risk situations. So if you notice that resisting high-fat foods is particularly difficult for you when you’re dining out with friends, then small improvements will be felt as success to be built upon. This will improve your confidence and commitment to sticking with your healthy behavior.
Many of the motivating factors we’ve talked about so far involve changes that you need to make inside yourself. There are also environmental changes you can make to support your efforts to change unhealthy behaviors. Surrounding yourself with cues to remind you of our commitment to change and help you sustain changes can be quite useful.
Surround yourself with supportive people who share your commitment to a healthy lifestyle.
Keep healthy foods readily available to you.
Establish an exercise routine with a partner.
Keep a list of your priorities and the amount time committed to each task as a reminder of your improve time management techniques.