Adopting healthy habits: What do we know about the science of behavior change? – National Institute on Aging

Adopting healthy habits: What do we know about the science of behavior change? – National Institute on Aging

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Adopting and maintaining healthy behaviors increases the chances of living a long, healthy life, and engaging in unhealthy behaviors can have the opposite effect. Seven out of 10 deaths in the United States are the result of chronic diseases, which for many people can be prevented by eating well, staying physically active, avoiding tobacco use and excessive drinking, and getting regular health screenings. But simply knowing these facts isn’t enough to motivate most people to adopt long-lasting behavior change. Why is that?

If you’ve ever tried to start a new exercise routine or eat healthier, you may have found it was more challenging to keep up with than you anticipated. According to Donald Edmondson, Ph.D., principal investigator of the Resource and Coordinating Center for the NIH Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) program, “Keeping behavior changes long enough to experience the benefits is incredibly hard.”

Behavior change requires letting go of old habits and adopting new ones, which is not always easy. However, what makes behavior change challenging for one person likely won’t be the same for someone else. Whether or not a person can maintain behavior change over time relies on different factors, too. For example, a person’s environment, workplace, and home life can make behavior change more or less likely to be successful.

Over the years, scientists have identified tactics for adopting healthier behaviors, such as wearing a watch to track your steps or keeping healthier foods in the home. However, these interventions don’t seem to work for everyone. Even when an approach is effective, the underlying mechanisms — why and how it works — often aren’t clear. Understanding these mechanisms could be the key to achieving effective and long-term behavior change for many people.

Understanding behavioral interventions

A behavioral intervention is an intentional change in the way you do something, such as eating healthier foods or exercising regularly, that is designed to make you healthier. In general, behavioral interventions use different ways of thinking, feeling, acting, or relating with others to stimulate a change in a person’s behavior to promote their health and well-being. For example, a behavioral intervention could be aimed at modifying something about a person’s living environment or diet, with the goal of improving their health.

It seems straightforward to assume that if someone wears a pedometer and adds 30 minutes of exercise to their day, they’re likely to notice changes in their body and overall health. The problem, however, is that even if this intervention is effective, we don’t fully understand how or why it worked for this individual. Did they set goals for daily step counts and enjoy the challenge of improving over time? Did the pedometer show them how sedentary they are normally, causing them to feel embarrassed?

If we don’t understand how an intervention worked, then we will not …….