Why is it so hard to change a behavior?

time for change sign with led light
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2

Behavior change. What is it exactly? When it comes to our health, it could mean changing unhealthy lifestyle choices to a healthier lifestyle choices. Examples include if you smoke, stopping smoking; if you eat fast food on a daily basis, learning to cook at home; or changing a sedentary lifestyle to an active lifestyle.

The problem with change is people don’t like to change. Change makes us uncomfortable. Change can cause unwanted stress and it can be overwhelming. Our perspective about change tends to be negative; however, some changes are positive. So why is it so hard to change a behavior?

The answer is simple to give, yet difficult to achieve. Our behaviors, positive or negative, are rooted in our belief system. This includes what we believe about ourselves and our world around us. Our identities are also closely tied to our behaviors. Therefore, in order to truly change a behavior, we have to sometimes change our identities.

Your behavior is linked to your beliefs

Most of us have no idea why we act the way we act about certain things. You’ve been developing your belief system since birth. Your belief system is built from your personal life experiences, the environment you were raised in, beliefs your family and friends have taught you, people who influence you, traumatic events in your life, and so on.

When it comes to behavior change knowing the belief that drives the behavior is an important step to successfully changing the behavior. I’d like you to think about these questions:

  • Do you believe exercise is important for good health? If so, do you exercise?
  • Do you believe eating nutritious foods will help prevent or manage diseases such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, or heart disease?
  • Do you believe good sleep hygiene is important for overall health and wellness? If so, do you sleep 7-8 hours each night?

There’s a difference between knowing and believing

When I’m working with clients who are working on behavior change for their health I often hear, “I KNOW what I should be doing, I just don’t do it.” Why? Because knowing that something is good for you is not the same as believing that something is good for you.

Again, your behavior always follows your beliefs, not what you KNOW to be true.

People who exercise regularly don’t just know exercise is good for their health, they believe it and their actions reflect their beliefs.

People who eat nutritious foods on a regular basis don’t just know nutritious foods are good for them, they believe it and their actions reflect their beliefs.

If you want to know what you believe about anything, pay attention to your actions or your behaviors. If you believe food is “comfort”, “relieves stress”, “makes you happy”, and so on, you go to food when you need comfort, are stressed, or want to feel happy.

One of the first things I teach is FOOD IS FUEL. This is not a new concept. If your belief about food changes, your behavior towards food changes. That’s how behavior change works. However, it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to be patient with the process. If not, you’ll give up and guess what? You’ll go back to your old ways.

Why diets do not work permanently

When it comes to weight loss, almost every diet out there can help you lose weight while you’re “on the diet.” Statistically, when you come off the diet you gain the weight back and some people gain more. Why?

Diets fix the symptom of overweight and obesity, but they don’t necessarily address the cause. You can temporarily override your belief system when following a specific diet plan, but eventually your behavior will revert back to your belief system. This is why diets don’t work. However, changing a behavior by addressing your belief about the behavior can help you have life-long success.

It’s a life-long journey

It’s no secret that as we age our bodies are deteriorating. While genetics does play a role in your susceptibility to certain diseases, your environment and life-style choices play an even bigger role. However, once again, if you believe your poor health is caused solely by genetics and not your lifestyle, you won’t change your lifestyle.

I recently had a conversation with a friend whose blood pressure has been up a little lately. This friend exercises on a regular basis and eats pretty good with the occasional “cheat”. So I asked him, “Why do you think your blood pressure is up?” He responded, “Hereditary, I guess.” I then asked him if he thought his weight was good and if he were eating as healthy as he was just a few years ago. He admitted he could lose about 10 pounds and that he was grabbing food on the go quite a bit while working. My advice to him was to start watching his sodium intake, which was extremely high, and work on losing weight. If his blood pressure started to come back down, then his “genes” were not the problem, his current lifestyle choices were.

Living a healthier lifestyle is about changing unhealthy behaviors. It can be hard to change a behavior because our behaviors are linked to our belief system. I’m not denying that our genes do play a role in our susceptibility to developing certain diseases, but our lifestyles play an important role as well.

You don’t have to change everything all at once. That can feel extremely overwhelming. Is there one thing you can start changing? Changing doesn’t always mean taking something away; sometimes it can be adding something. For example, if you don’t eat fruit, can you add one piece of fruit to our diet? Can you increase your water consumption? Can you take a 10 minute walk today? If you have questions, or need help, please contact me. In health – Jennifer

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