Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Health Habits Develop Early and Are Hard to Change

If you want to have a healthy life you need to start early with health habits.

If you want to develop good health habits that are associated with a longer, healthier, and happier life you have to start early…very early! Research and clinical practice clearly shows that health habits develop very early in life and, once well established, are exceedingly difficult to change. This is why it is so critically important to maintain a healthy diet and exercise routine while avoiding smoking and over drinking at young ages. Once problems and poor health habits emerge they tend to be very long lasting. For example, research has indicated that 97% of people who lose weight will regain it all within 5 years. Yes, behavior really is hard to change!

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I had a recent patient in my clinical practice that binge drinks. Since he’s a college student he thinks that it is normative for people of his age to drink heavily, engage in sexual hook ups, and party frequently. He says that most of his friends of similar age does it. He believes that once he completes college his drinking behavior will significantly change for the better. I hope that he’s right but I think that he’s wrong. Research indicates that drinking habits get formed during the late teen/early adulthood period and don’t change so easily. With 20% of American college students being binge drinkers (i.e., 5 drinks at a time or more) this is disturbing. Additionally, the risk of unintended consequences such as drunken driving accidents, sexually transmitted diseases, other types of accidents, fights, and so forth are greatly increased during these frequent drunken episodes.

Another example...look at a child’s menu in any restaurant: hot dogs, burgers, pizza, fries, mac and cheese, fried chicken, and soda are standard fare. Children learn to eat and desire these items while young and these preferences don’t change much as they get older. Once in college, students often rely on fast food, pizza, tacos, burgers, and the like rather than healthier alternatives. Here at Santa Clara University, I have been impressed with the many healthy options for students in the university dining facilities. Certainly the healthy selections here are better than most all other campuses that I’ve visited. Shockingly, some campuses only offer fast food in their student unions with MacDonald's, Pizza Hut, and the like well represented.  Even with the best intentions and the availability of healthy food many students while under stress (e.g., exam periods) are more likely to eat these problem foods from their youth.

So, take health habits seriously at a young age. It will make a difference in the long term for health, well being, and longevity.  And if you are no longer young, don't give up but be realistic in your efforts to change health behaviors trying to do your very best to be attentive to change your environment to maximize healthy choices. And consider getting some structured help if you can do so. 

So, what do you think?

 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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