What are the Skills and Strategies for Successful Health Behaviour Change?

Dec 10, 2015

As health behaviour change researchers and clinicians with a focus on physical activity behaviour, the questions we get asked the most are “What do I need to do to get more physical activity into my life?”, and “Once I start, how do I keep it going?”.

The steps to adding more activity in your life, based on the latest evidence, are quite clear. Putting it into practice, however, can be more complicated!

Let’s start with the key strategies that evidence shows can help you successfully engage in more physical activity:

1-Confidence – that’s where it all starts (and stops!). Also known as “self-efficacy”, this is the belief that you have the skills to successfully engage in physical activity on a regular basis. If you have confidence in your physical activity skills – great! If not, the best way to build your confidence, or efficacy, is to “start low and progress slow”. For example – for a new exerciser, starting with 5 minutes a day of light walking might be where you are at. Only 5 minutes, you say?? That sure doesn’t sound like what you hear in the press about getting in at least 30 minutes of activity a day? And you are right – our current physical activity guidelines are for at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on most days of the week. And that is a good goal to work towards. However, the likelihood of being successful at the more realistic “5-minutes” for the new exerciser is higher. And that experience of success builds your confidence, so that you start to see yourself as someone who can (and does) engage in physical activity. Don’t be afraid to start low (often lower than you think) and build up your confidence along with your physical activity minutes.

2-Setting goals – you’ve all heard it before – SMART goals are the way to go.

Be as Specific as possible: what type of activity? when? for how long? Who are you going to do it with?

How will you Measure whether you followed through? Are you meeting your targets? Does it fit in with your ‘life’? Have you been successful this week? Or, do you need to re-adjust?

One of the keys to success is making Attainable goals. Is this something you can achieve in your desired timeline?

Being Realistic about your added activity is important. When is it realistic for you to get in your physical activity?

Make sure it’s Timely! Put in a timeline for when you will achieve your goals – and re-evaluate/adjust to keep yourself moving.

Goals can be incredibly beneficial for measuring your health behaviour change. Set them “SMART”, and you have a powerful motivating tool.

Goals are a great way to start…but are only part of the plan. There are a number of other strategies to motivate you to say on track!

3-Developing strategies to deal with the barriers – Remember back to our blog on “what is health behaviour change?”. Health behaviour change is not easy – if it was, lifestyle related behaviours would not be one of the leading contributors chronic diseases. There are a number of barriers that impede (or outright stop!) progress. Some we build ourselves, while others are not so much under our control. Either way, these barriers can cause even the most well-intentioned to slip from their health behaviour change plans. Planning for your change – and how you will bounce back after that relapse (when life gets to busy, work gets in the way, an illness derails you, or vacation plans take you out of your usual routine) is critical for your success. Planning for when and how you will get ‘back on the horse’ (we are in Calgary!), is key. Like your goal setting – keep this specific and realistic. For example, maybe during that vacation time there is lots of walking or swimming to replace your usual gym routine. Or during a prolonged illness when energy levels are low, a more gentle fitness option such as yoga or light walking is built into a regular routine.

4-Be Accepting. None of us are perfect, and when you look at health behaviour change as “all or none”, you are setting yourself up for failure. It’s ok to change plans, it’s ok to feel stuck. And it’s ok to really not want to engage in physical activity some days. The key is to acknowledge those feelings, then figure out how you can make it be something that you want to do. This brings us to our last two points.

5-Social Support. We cannot emphasize enough how important the role of others is in your health behaviour change. This does NOT mean that others control what you can and should do. But their support can be absolutely crucial for successful health behaviour change. Consider not just your family or friends, or those you mostly associated with your ‘social circle’, but rather, think bigger or wider than that. What, or who, in your work environment is supporting you to be physically active? What about your health environment – are your doctors, therapists or other health professionals knowledgable about your unique needs for health behaviour change? In your home environment – having a dog is very supportive for engaging in more physical activity. So is a spouse who engages in physical activity and recognizes that physical activity needs to be part of your usual routine. Do a quick scan of your environments – enhance what supports you engaging in physical activity and think about how your supports can help you address your current barriers?

6-Fun. It really is that simple. If we can have fun while we engage in health behaviour change, we will be more likely to stick with it. Think about it – when was the last time that you did something that you really did not enjoy, and you said to yourself “Boy, I can’t wait to do that again!!” Yeah, never! Us too. We make healthier choices sometimes because we know it’s good for us…but often times, we need what’s good for us to offer a bit more. It’s like the cheese sauce or the ranch dip for the broccoli. We know broccoli is good for us – but when we dress it up with the sauce or the dip, it really becomes fun to eat! Physical activity can be like this too. There are so many choices (we’ll have a blog on that soon!) – so finding something that is FUN, and maybe that includes an element of social support (working out with friends is usually a blast!).

There are other strategies that you might see or read about. And some of these may work for you. Health behaviour change is very personal – what works for one person may not work for another. But this list is supported with evidence that consistently shows these are important elements that will support successful positive health behaviour change.

Be Active and Be Well,

Dr. Nicole Culos-Reed and Lauren Capozzi