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To break unhealthy habits, don't expect instant gratification

When it comes to improving our health, we all know what to do. Exercise. Eat right. Quit smoking. Drink alcohol in moderation. Wash our hands.

So why don't more of us do it?

Because it isn't so simple. Getting healthy and staying that way often means waging a battle against our genes, physical and social environments, and a lifetime of bad habits.

Dr. James Prochaska, director of the cancer prevention research center at University of Rhode Island and co-author of the book Changing for Good, says most behavioral changes involve six stages: denial, recognition, preparation to change, taking action, maintaining the new behavior and termination, when the bad habit is no longer a threat.

When people skip straight to action, they are likely to return to their bad habits before long. "Behavior change equals progress, not immediate action," he said.

We tend to do best when the reward or punishment for our behavior is immediate. You don't stick your finger in an electric socket more than once. But weight loss can take weeks, even months, to see.

The same principle applies to hand washing. Germs aren't visible to the naked eye, and most of us don't make the connection between failing to wash and feeling sick a couple of days later.

With any behavior change, you have to want to do it, said Donna Jeffe, research associate professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine and director of health behavior and outreach at the Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis. Across all behaviors, the pros need to outweigh the cons, she said.

Be aware of cultural factors. "We have harmonized to an environment in which we don't have to move around and we can order a pizza and get it in a matter of minutes," said Dr. Robert Kushner, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.


• Set a date.

• Develop a plan with specific measurable goals and a time line.

• Make a public commitment.

• Keep a record (calories consumed, cigarettes smoked, time spent exercising) and post it where you can see it.

• Realize that behavior change is incremental and lifelong.

• Build healthy practices into your routine.

• Identify barriers and brainstorm specific techniques for overcoming them.

• Find a support system.

• Work for neighborhood improvements such as lighting streets, installing sidewalks and recruiting healthy grocery stores, restaurants and food vendors.

• Be consistent. Changing behavior is like learning a dance step. You have to repeat it until it's automatic.

• Make goals smaller. The more specific the goal, the more likely you will be able to do it.

• If you lapse or don't achieve the goal, reflect on why. Maybe it was the wrong time or the goal was unrealistic. Don't give up altogether.

To break unhealthy habits, don't expect instant gratification 01/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 3:30am]
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