Another Way of Moving Toward Your Health Goals
New research sheds light on what's possible in making healthy behavior changes.
Posted May 23, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- The focus on making healthy lifestyle changes has centered on altering one health-related behavior at a time.
- A new study tested the utility of goal prioritization in helping people to make one or two lifestyle improvements.
- People who used goal prioritization to focus on making two changes achieved progress without undermining other lifestyle behaviors.
- More research is needed to clarify the breadth and boundary conditions of these new findings.
OK, who among us, at some point, has ever tried to tweak what we do in some way for the good of our health? It’s pretty fair to say that most of us could raise our hands to that one. Perhaps this involved consuming more fruits and vegetables, imbibing less alcohol, getting more sleep, being more physically active, or eating fewer baked goods and ice cream (no offense to baked goods and ice cream, as a certain amount has its place, and I’m personally firm about that one). Regardless of your past or present health aspirations, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you know what it’s like to aspire to change your lifestyle in ways that are better for you.
But what if you wanted to change more than one aspect of your health?
Is it a good idea to try shifting two lifestyle habits rather than simply taking on one at a time? A new experimental study just addressed that question. Why is this noteworthy? Well, as the researchers who conducted the study pointed out, scientists have been concentrating on the process of altering a single aspect of lifestyle (e.g., exercising more), leaving the process of modifying more than one behavior as an unresolved issue.
In addition, the research team noted that they tested an approach known as goal prioritization, as there haven’t been any large-scale studies yet to assess its utility. And finally, the research team highlighted how they’re examining two ideas about behavior change in psychology side by side: The first idea assumes that people won’t be able to make two healthy changes at once because the inner reserves that they need to manage one change will take away from their ability to manage the other. The second idea assumes that people will be able to make two health changes concurrently, as these changes reflect how a person thinks about the possible selections before them.
The research team randomly placed over 1,400 people into one of four groups and then followed them for two months. Some people went into one of two control groups; they only filled out measures of either spending-related behaviors or health-related behaviors. The other folks in each of the two experimental groups received assistance with goal prioritization in the service of altering one versus two health-related actions. More specifically, the researchers asked people in these groups to name one or two (depending on their group) health-related actions out of a list of six to focus on for the duration of the study (these involved exercising, flossing, eating vegetables and fruit, eliminating unhealthy food, avoiding alcohol, and changing sedentary behavior). The individuals in these experimental groups also briefly shared how they would give precedence to the health behaviors they chose.
The researchers found that the goal prioritization approach worked in helping individuals to improve their health practices. Not only that, the people in the study were able to strive toward two healthy habits at once without either one being impaired and without eroding any other health patterns that weren’t the focus of their attention. Not only that, the people who aimed to enhance two aspects of their lifestyle actually made more progress toward their goals than those who tried to improve a single element of their health.
It also didn’t seem to matter which two habits (out of these six) people targeted; the achievements occurred regardless. In other words, contrary to the notion that you might hinder your progress if you don’t stick to improving only one aspect of your lifestyle, prioritizing two healthy changes may be better than one.
Having said all of this, as the researchers rightly stated, this research is new, and more research needs to be done with a wider range of health behaviors. They also added that more studies will be needed to see how much these results apply to the population as a whole, as the folks who stayed in the study from beginning to end were older and had received more education than those who didn’t remain in it for the entire time. Nevertheless, these results open the door to a potentially fruitful way of thinking about and pursuing a healthier life.
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Berkman, E.T., Hutcherson, C. A., Livingston, J. L., Kahn, L. E., & Inzlicht, M. (2017). Self-Control as value-based choice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(5), 422–428. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417704394
Conner, M., Wilding, S., Prestwich, A., Hutter, R., Hurling, R., Harreveld, F.V., Abraham, C., & Sheeran, P. (2022). Goal prioritization and behavior change: Evaluation of an intervention for multiple health behaviors. Health Psychology, 41(5), 356–365. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0001149