How to Develop Healthy Behaviors
I personally admire those people who can resolve to improve their health and actually achieve their goals through sheer will-power. What makes them different from people who fail at their efforts to maintain a permanent healthy lifestyle? This article examines four key factors that, when understood and applied, can help us greatly increase our chance of succeeding at health resolutions:
- Psychological and social factors interact with our biology.
- It is our own responsibility to promote and maintain our health.
- It's easier to promote healthy lifestyles early, rather than to change them later.
- Positive stress appraisal and management are essential to good health.
Psychological and Social Factors Interact with Health
- Have I developed a solid social support network?
- Am I optimistic or pessimistic?
- Do I view stresses as mountain-like or simply challenges?
Twin studies, especially, have proven that two people with the same genetic vulnerability toward certain diseases, don't always both develop the disease, and that two people exposed to the same illness don't both necessarily get sick (see: How Stress Affects The Immune System). Obviously other factors, psychological and social, affect our susceptibility to disease. Factors such as optimism or pessimism, how we perceive and cope with stress, our support system, and other factors play large roles in determining whether or not we acquire a disease, how fast the disease progresses, and how quickly (if at all) we recover.
For instance, social support protects us against chronic disease and reduces our risk of mortality (see: How Social Support Determines our Ability to Cope with Stress).
- Social support buffers the effects of stress on our body.
- Social support can encourage and support healthy behavior.
- Social support directly supports the biological mechanisms that control disease.
It is Our Responsibility to Promote and Maintain our Own Health
Although other factors may affect our vulnerability to illness (genetics, environment, etc.), it is finally up to us to make wise choices to improve our physical health (exercising, eating nutritional food), improve our social network, lower our stress levels, and figure out why we may be engaging in unhealthy behaviors.
As a group, Americans are becoming more educated about their health risks and improving their health in certain areas:
- Although the percentage of overweight people has changed little over the past 20 years, we are, as a nation becoming more aware of Health Barriers and are working to overcome them.
- The three leading causes of death (heart disease, cancer, and stroke) continue to decline, probably due to a lower level of tobacco use and a shift toward eating less saturated fat.
- The death rate and new cases of AIDS has leveled off.
- Use of preventive and early-detection health services (pap smears, mammograms, and childhood immunizations) is increasing.
- Life expectancy is increasing.
- The infant mortality rate is decreasing.
Areas Where We Can Improve
About one million deaths in the U.S. are preventable*. We need to:
- Control underage and excessive alcohol drinking (preventing 100,000 automobile and other injury deaths each year).
- Eliminate public possession of firearms (preventing 35,000 deaths).
- Eliminate all forms of tobacco use (preventing 400,000 deaths from cancer, stroke, and heart disease).
- Improve our nutrition and exercise (preventing 300,000 deaths from heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke).
- Reduce risky sexual behavior (preventing 30,000 deaths from STDs).
- Provide full access to infectious disease immunizations (preventing 100,000 deaths).
*All figures are approximate.
It's Easier to Prevent Unhealthy Lifestyles than to Change Them
Although we're often good about initiating a variety of healthy lifestyle choices (quit smoking, quit drinking, lose weight, start exercising), we so often don't stick to our resolutions. We need to first understand why we engage in unhealthy behavior and address these underlying issues to increase our chances of permanent improvement in our health habits.
However, most of us know that changing an unhealthy behavior is much harder than learning prevention practices from childhood.
So, as parents or authority figures, are we modeling and instituting healthy behaviors in our households, schools, etc? Life-long health challenges can be significantly lessened in children who grow up in homes where parents are non-smokers, healthy eaters, get regular exercise, and don't over-drink.
As a community, we need to push for younger age interventions for 'at-risk' children.
Positive Stress Appraisal and Management are Essential to Good Health
We now know (see: How Does Stress Affect Your Health, How Stress Affects the Immune System, and How to Cope With Stressful Situations) that managing stress and adjusting how we perceive stress have indirect and direct effects on improving our health.
When we view stress as a challenge that we can handle and control, this attitude minimizes the impact of stress on our health.
Stress-management strategies we can implement include:
- Keeping stress at manageable levels
- Preserving our physical resources by eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and drinking responsibly
- Establishing a positive social support network
- Communicating our feelings
- Cultivating a sense of humor
- Changing pessimism to optimism
- Learning to relax
Successful Health Changes
Simple will-power is fundamental but not the entire answer when looking to develop life-long healthy habits. Understanding and acting on the above four factors can make the difference in our success at achieving a permanent, healthy lifestyle.