The Power to Change
By, Christine Sullivan, MS
Last week I read an interesting article in the LA Times about willpower and it got me thinking about our tendency to attach a moral value to willpower, like some old fashioned Yankee virtue. But willpower, the determination and self-control required to manage difficult circumstances, is a flexible quality and it waxes and wanes throughout the day, depending on multiple factors including stress and fatigue.
For example, imagine that you have decided to limit the simple carbohydrates in your diet. You wake up fully committed to your goals and eat a healthy breakfast. Then the traffic makes you late for work, you get a call from the child who forgot “X” and you sit through a meeting that seems to last forever. Each of these events requires you to use self-control. They have nothing to do with what you eat, until you get home and reach for the metaphorical cookie jar. The events of the day zapped your willpower.
The key to successful behavior change is to create new habits and build a personal environment that supports them. The advantage of a habit is that it doesn’t require any thought, or use up any willpower. So what does it take to establish healthful habits and create lasting change?
If you have been hanging around at Core Fitness, you have already found a supportive environment and made some positive changes in your life. Perhaps you are thinking about what other changes you can make to improve your health. Before you read any further, think about a personal goal, what it means to you, and what steps you are willing to take to realize it. Now, take a look at the following popular theories of behavior change and see where you fit in.
The Health Belief Model (HBM):
At its simplest, HBM says that individuals will change their health behavior based on four beliefs: how susceptible they feel to a disease threat, how severe the consequences of having the disease will be, to what extent the change will benefit them, and what barriers there are to implementing the change. Within this model, the motivation to take preventative health steps is most reliably predicted by an individual’s feelings of susceptibility to disease, and among those who are already sick, change happens most often when the benefits are clear and well proven.
When you think about your personal goal, you might examine why you want to make this change. Are the expected benefits clear to you? And what barriers will you face in making this change?
The Socio Economic Model
This model moves beyond an individual’s beliefs and looks more carefully at the many social and environmental influences on behavior. The questions you might want to ask yourself are:
- Do you feel confident that you have the skills necessary to create change? Is there something you need to learn how to do?
- How do your personal relationships influence your ability to create new habits? Will your family and friends be supportive of the change?
- Where do you spend most of your time: school, work, neighborhood, and how will that impact your ability to engage in a new behavior?
- Finally, (and mainly out of our control) do we live in a culture of health?
My personal struggle has been finding the time, energy, and motivation to incorporate cardio exercise into my routine. If I examine my ‘change-ability’ within the context of these theories, I can say that while I absolutely believe in the benefits of cardio exercise, I am not feeling terribly susceptible to disease. If the experts are right and preventive behavior is most influenced by perceived susceptibility, this may help to explain why I have not made any progress with this goal. But, it’s not really that simple. When I look at my social and structural influences, I see some challenges, long work-days and conflicting family priorities. What I need to do, is determine what changes I can make to create a more supportive environment, and then enlist the social support that I need to help me create healthier habits.
Wish me Luck!