Personal Barriers to Good Health

Habits loom large as barriers to good health: Be Strategic!

Posted Sep 10, 2010

Annual Physical
I had my annual physical examination this morning. I've got a new doctor, so we had an interesting "get to know you conversation" that included a chat about what I study as a psychologist - self-regulation failure. It's a common interest to physicians, of course, because they know patients often fail to implement necessary health behaviors. One thing he said in particular surprised me.

My doctor simply said, "If someone hasn't been active in their younger years, it's pretty much impossible for them to get active later in life. They just don't see it as part of their lives, who they are or even as necessary to good health." It struck me as pretty pessimistic, but it's certainly an opinion forged over many years of experience with patients of all sorts. His focus is certainly on the empty part of the glass; you know, "the glass is half empty" sort of approach.

This focus on past behavior, our habits, or what we might call "prepotent behaviors" certainly fits well with Temporal Self-Regulation Theory. I think the theory identifies a way out of this dilemma, or at least the necessary conditions for success. It's the other half of the glass, per se.

Temporal Self-Regulation Theory has been on my mind a lot over the past few days, as one of my graduate students, Eric Heward, is finalizing revisions to his thesis, and he draws on this theory to explain the results of his study of emotional intelligence and procrastination. As Eric explains, to self-regulate our behavior to achieve a goal, we need to exert self-control (also known as executive function) to overcome habitual responses. For example, if your long-term goal is to lose weight and increase cardiovascular health, aerobic exercise is important. However, you've probably become overweight and you're suffering from poorer cardiovascular health because your habit has been to be more sedentary than active. The prepotent response in this case is to sit around, not run around.

If you're actually going to exercise, and you didn't in the past, it's going to take an act of self-control (a component of emotional intelligence that Eric found to be related to procrastination - the less self-control, the more procrastination). You can implement a life change to include exercise, but you really do have to recognize that your habits have to be overcome in the process.

What's the "half-full part" of the glass from this perspective? Well, we all have some self-control strength that we can bring to bear on important goals. In fact, Chrisoula Andreou, a philosopher at the University of Utah, argues that we can leverage self-control in one area of our lives to help us in another where we seem to have less. Here's a link to a podcast where I explain just how she thinks this works. I think there is hope and optimism in Chrisoula's recognition of strategies to harness our strengths to overcome our limitations.

This brings me back to my doctor's more pessimistic view. Habits are difficult to overcome, and in his experience, if early habits are not for an active life style, it is really difficult to establish proactive health behaviors later in life. Being strategic is crucial, and I would bet that those people who prove to be the exception to the rule are those who are strategic in their approach, using implementation intentions  in their planning and strategies to make the most of their limited willpower to act daily on more health-promoting behaviors.

As for me and my annual visit, well, I'm happy with the outcome. As they say, when you have your health, you have everything! This dinosaur dad is counting on the kids to keep him going too!

Hall, P.A, & Fong, G.T. (2007). Temporal self-regulation theory: A model for individual health behavior. Health Psychology Review, 1, 6-52.