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Set Resolutions Aside: Let Behavior Change Guide Your Health in 2021

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

Mitzi Collinsworth, January 17, 2021

Goodbye 2020, Hello 2021

Each new year marks the beginning of positive change. It is a time to reflect on what brought us value and how we want to build upon that. The year 2020 felt scary, turbulent, upsetting, and worrisome. Yet, we found peace in the ability to focus on what really matters in life. Despite all of the chaos, COVID-19 allowed us to focus on ourselves, loved ones, and even little furry friends. Our eyes were opened to much needed change to provide healthcare and health education for all people. Even in times of financial struggle and uncertainty, it felt good to find a moment of peace.

We no longer want to work 12+ hours a day 6-7 days per week with no time left to live life. We want fair and equal pay that meets the current cost of living. We have realized that we can do our job effectively in less time and increase productivity when given more time off. What is the point of success and wealth, if you cannot enjoy it?

For those who can work from home, eliminating the commute and time to get dressed up has gained an extra 1-2 hours per day. The flexibility has also allowed people to take care of ailing family members, children, pets, and day to day errands. The World Economic Forum states, “the study shows that fears about lost productivity during the pandemic are largely unfounded. Employees haven’t slacked off just because they are at home. In fact, some home comforts are helping many employees stay at the same level of productivity or reach even higher. They enjoy dressing down, having their pet nearby and personalizing a workspace they don’t have to share with nosy neighbors peeking over the cubicle” (Knowledge@Wharton, 2020).

Those extra hours now allow time for prioritizing our health. No gym, no problem. Home gym equipment sales went through the roof. Good luck finding dumbbells and strength equipment that is either out of stock or being price gouged by third party sellers. Equipment like Pelotons, outdoor bicycles, and the awesome return of the roller skates are making a comeback. My sister and I lived on our roller skates back in the 1980’s. It has brought me so much joy to teach my children the joy of roller skating. Pet adoption skyrocketed and is encouraging people to get outside for daily walks. Bottom line, we are taking control of our physical and mental health again.

Why Resolutions Don’t Work

This is where fitness and nutrition experts, like me, can help. Losing weight and getting in shape seems so easy. It certainly should be, but like anything, you need education for the long haul. Learning to eat right, exercise properly, and making time for mental health is a skill. They are skills like learning to play an instrument, a sport, or an artistic endeavor.

According to Professor John C. Norcross, Ph.D. at the University of Scranton Psychology, “the estimate is that less than 10% of New Year's resolutions are actually achieved” (Weinschenk, 2016). Maintaining your health is a learned behavior. How you eat, move, and think, right at this very moment, is a learned behavior. Many of these behaviors stem from our upbringing or those we surround ourselves with socially.

I cannot argue that going for a 20 minute daily walk will not be beneficial. Of course, it is, but not if you are eating more than you need. These behaviors deserve a delicate balance. As a trainer of 28 years, I have seen almost any resolution you can think of. My favorite is the “I am going to run a marathon this year” and they have never run over 10 minutes 1-2 times per week. A goal must be realistic. I am not going to proclaim that this goal is unachievable. There are many people who have done this very goal and succeeded. However, this will not work for most people. It is too much too soon leading to discouragement and injury. So, let’s look at different theories of behavior change and how you can apply them to set realistic goals for 2021.

Learned Behaviors

What is a behavior? We need to look at the definition that best represents what a human can gain by performing a certain behavior. The Oxford dictionary defines behavior as “the way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus” (2020). A dog, for instance, learns to sit by gaining either positive feedback or a treat each time the action is performed. This turns into a learned behavior. Humans learn behaviors in the same way. If we do something and it receives a negative response, we are not likely to repeat it.

This behavior conditioning begins when we are infants. We learn cues from those who care for us. A baby recognizes they will be tended to if they cry. Growing up, we learn that behaviors can lead to negative stimulus and positive stimulus. Overtime, we keep the behaviors that provide the stimulus we seek.

I grew up in a family that learned to eat healthy and exercise, however, it didn’t start out this way. My parents grew up poor with little to no education regarding proper nutrition and the importance of exercise. They learned to eat a Cajun and southern cuisine afforded to them by their socioeconomic status and family traditions. Several of my grandparents were smokers, ate too much, and didn’t move enough.

My parents changed this behavior chain when my father joined the Army. He was told by a doctor that if he didn’t lose weight, he would die young. From that moment on, our family dynamic was changed forever. My mother learned to decrease food portions and offer healthier options. My father joined a family running program, offered by the Army, that rewarded us with certificates and patches as we hit certain mileage milestones. We began running races together as a family celebrating those of us who won our age group. In high school, my father taught me how to lift weights, and I have continued that behavior through to today.

Our exposure to learned behaviors depends on our upbringing, socioeconomic status, culture, and religious beliefs. If you grew up without an understanding of behaviors needed to maintain your health, there are steps you can take to get you there.

The Theories Behind Behavior Change

A behavior is like a habit. A ritual we perform daily for the stimulus we desire. Based on B.J. Fogg and Charles Duhigg, to create a new habit, you have to follow these three steps:

1. Pick a small attainable action

2. Attach the new action to a previous habit to build upon it

3. Make the action easy to build consistency. (Weinschenk, 2016)

Now these steps sound very simple, however, we have to consider other factors that can affect behavior change. During my research, I stumbled upon behavior change theories from the National Cancer Institute. This research was provided in 2005 titled Theory at a Glance. A Guide for Health Promotion Practice. I found the information compelling because they focus on how individuals, groups, communities, and regions play a role when attempting behavior change. An individual needs the right stimulus, support, and belief that they can actually make this change.

I found the graphic below to serve as a powerful image showing how all of these factors affect the outcome.

This image can seem overwhelming, like the odds are stacked against you, but I assure you they are not. Just because someone may be from low socioeconomic status, have poor genetics, and little to no support, doesn’t mean you are doomed to fail.