Six tips on adopting healthy behaviors

Faculty at the Envolve Center for Health Behavior Change, a collaboration among Washington University, Duke University and Centene Corp., share what it takes to make bad habits into good ones.

Reduce “friction costs”

“Behavioral science teaches us that we can increase our chances of succeeding at a desired behavior by reducing ‘friction costs.’ The idea is that the more steps something requires, the harder or more frustrating we find it. The reverse is true as well — the easier something is, the more likely we are to do it. So think about streamlining processes so it’s easier to make healthy choices. For example, cutting up fruits and vegetables as soon as you get home from the store increases the chance that you will turn to them for a snack or last-minute meal.”

— Michal Grinstein-Weiss is a professor at the Brown School and founding director of the Envolve Center for Health Behavior Change. She is also associate director of the Center for Social Development and studies behavior-based health-care interventions.

De-stress by giving up over-committing

“[Requests are] usually for some time that is far into the future — say, a month from now. You look at your calendar, and it looks rather empty. So you say to yourself, ‘Since I’m mostly free a month from now, how can I say no?’ But our future is not really going to be free; the details are just not filled in yet. [So] when you receive a request, imagine that you … are fully booked that day without the ability to switch anything around — maybe you are out of town. Now, try to gauge your emotional reaction to this news. If you feel sad, you should go ahead and accept the request. However, if you feel relieved that you can’t do it, turn it down.”

Dan Ariely is faculty director of the Envolve Center for Health ­Behavior Change and a leading researcher in behavior economics. This is adapted from his book Irrationally Yours: On Missing Socks, Pickup Lines, and Other Existential Puzzles.

Look for social support if and when you need it

“Not everyone needs social support to change every habit, but the ones that are more social in nature (like going out to eat with others) may require some negotiation and invitations for support. Family members who do not support healthy-eating ­intentions or tobacco-cessation attempts will make it much harder for the person trying to make a change to succeed. ­Co-workers can be helpful by not always bringing in cookies and cakes to the office and by suggesting walking or stretching breaks or meetings.”

— Amy McQueen is an assistant professor in the School of Medicine, ­co-director of the Health Communication Research Lab in the Brown School and lead faculty of the Envolve Center for Health Behavior Change.

Use a complete plan

“Excessive weight gain, weight loss and weight maintenance are complex outcomes influenced by biology; individual eating and behaviors; and family, social, community and environmental influences. (For example, an environment that promotes overconsumption through media and easy access can sabotage the best efforts to maintain weight loss.) These influences operate together to challenge weight loss and maintenance efforts. Any weight gain–prevention method that is not comprehensive, multi- component and sustainable is going to have less effectiveness. The more comprehensive an effort can be, including eating and regular activity, the more effective it will be.”

— Debra Haire-Joshu, the Joyce Wood Professor at the Brown School and the School of Medicine, is director of the Center for Diabetes Translation Research and the Center for Obesity Prevention and Policy Research, as well as faculty director of the Envolve Center for Health Behavior Change.

Keep kids healthy

“Parental modeling is critically important in forming a child’s eating and health habits. Children observe and want to emulate their parents, and parents are constantly, often unconsciously, sending important messages to their children about their eating behaviors. In school, limiting what kids can buy would promote healthier snacking. While policies may apply to foods sold as part of school food service, more comprehensive policies including vending and other food sources such as fundraisers (e.g., bake sales) and school stores are likely more effective. Another factor that can help children make healthy food choices at school is to limit advertising for items such as soda and fast food.”

— Rachel Tabak is a research assistant professor at the Brown School. She works in obesity prevention and community-based physical activity and nutrition strategies at the Prevention Research Center and the Envolve Center for Health Behavior Change.

Know what’s outside your control

“The behaviors that lead to obesity (e.g., unhealthy dietary behaviors, inadequate physical activity) are complex. While in the end, individuals make choices about their behavior, these choices are influenced by many factors, some of which are out of their control. These include genetic, environmental and policy factors. Research has demonstrated that genetics may make a significant contribution to the risk for obesity. ­Environment and policy factors influence what foods are available in an individual’s neighborhood and the relative affordability of these foods (i.e., if healthy foods are cheaper than unhealthy foods). With respect to physical activity, the choice to be active is much more difficult if an individual feels her neighborhood is unsafe.”

— Rachel Tabak

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