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How Can You Improve Your Health Behaviors?

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Identify your own current risk behaviors, the factors that influence those behaviors, and the strategies you can use to change them.

Clearly, change is not always easy. To successfully change a behavior, you need to see change not as a singular event but as a process by which you substitute positive patterns for new ones—a process that requires preparation, has several stages, and takes time to occur. The following four-step plan integrates ideas from each of the above behavior change models into a simple guide to moving forward.

Step One: Increase Your Awareness

Before you make a change, it helps to learn what researchers know about behaviors that contribute to and detract from your health. This is also a good time to take stock of the health determinants in your life: What aspects of your biology and behavior support your health, and which are obstacles to overcome? What elements of your social and physical environment could you tap into to help you change, and which might hold you back? Making a list of all of the health determinants that affect you—both positively and negatively—should greatly increase your understanding of what you might want to change and what to do to make that change happen

Step Two: Contemplate Change

With increased awareness of the behaviors that contribute to wellness and the specific health determinants affecting you, you may be contemplating change. In this stage, the following strategies may be helpful.

Examine Your Current Health Habits and Patterns

Do you routinely stop at fast-food restaurants for breakfast? Smoke when you’re feeling stressed? Party too much on the weekends? Get to bed way past 2 a.m.? When considering a behavior you might want to change, ask yourself the following:

  • How long has this behavior existed, and how frequently do I do it?
  • How serious are long- and short-term consequences of the habit or pattern?
  • What are some of my reasons for continuing this problematic behavior?
  • What kinds of situations trigger the behavior?
  • Are other people involved in this behavior? If so, how?

Health behaviors involve elements of personal choice, but they are also influenced by other determinants. Some are predisposing factors—thoughts, physical symptoms, family history, media messages, and other factors that make it more or less likely to change a behavior. For instance, if you’ve been contemplating quitting smoking, and then find out that a beloved grandparent who smokes has been diagnosed with emphysema, you’re more likely to register for a smoking cessation program.

In contrast, enabling factors are resources, relationships, and other factors that either support or undermine your efforts to change. For example, support from a friend who quit smoking might enable your change attempt, whereas sharing an apartment with someone who smokes would enable you to continue smoking.

motivation A social, cognitive, and emotional force that directs human behavior.

Finally, various reinforcing factors can encourage you to maintain or abandon your healthful behaviors. Encouragement and praise from others, as well as rewards you give yourself for accomplishing goals can reinforce positive behaviors. In contrast, something like gaining weight after you’ve quit smoking could act as a negative reinforcer, tempting you to start smoking again.

Identify a Target Behavior

To clarify your thinking around the various behaviors you might target for change, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I want? Is your ultimate goal to lose weight? To exercise more? To reduce stress? To have a lasting relationship? You need a clear picture of your target outcome.
  • Which change is the greatest priority at this time? Rather than saying, “I need to eat less and start exercising,” identify one specific behavior that contributes significantly to your greatest problem, and tackle that first
  • Why is this important to me? Think through why you want to change. Are you doing it because of your health? To improve your academic performance? To look better? To win someone else’s approval? It’s best to target a behavior because it’s right for you rather than because you think it will help you win others’ approval.
  • Successful targeting involves filling in the details. Identifying the specific behavior you would like to change—rather than the general problem—will help you set clear goals.

Learn More about the Target Behavior

Once you’ve clarified what behavior you’d like to change, you’re ready to learn more about that behavior. Again, the information in this textbook will help. In addition, this is a great time to learn how to find accurate and reliable health information on the Internet (see the Tech & Health box).

As you conduct your research, don’t limit your focus to the behavior and its effects. Learn all you can about aspects of your world that might pose obstacles to your success. For instance, let’s say you decide you want to meditate for 15 minutes a day. Besides learning what meditation is, how it’s practiced, and what benefits you might expect from it, also identify potential obstacles. Do you live in a super-noisy dorm? Are you afraid your friends might think meditating is weird? In short, learn everything you can—positive and negative—about your target behavior now, and you’ll be better prepared for change

Assess Your Motivation and Your Readi- ness to Change

Wanting to change is an essential prerequisite of the change process, but to achieve change, you need more than desire. You need real motivation, which isn’t just a feeling, but a social and cognitive force that directs your behavior. To understand what goes into motivation, let’s return for a moment to two models of change discussed earlier: the health belief model (HBM) and the social cognitive model (SCM).

Your friends can help you stay motivated by modeling healthy behaviors, offering support, joining you in your change efforts, and providing reinforcement.

Remember that, according to the HBM, your beliefs affect your ability to change. For example, when reaching for another cigarette, smokers sometimes tell themselves, “I’ll stop

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