Most people know what they should be doing to lead a healthier lifestyle … exercise-more, stress-less, get more hours of sleep, eat more vegetables and less sugar, stop smoking, drink less alcohol etc… and yet very few people are able to bring about the changes to their lifestyle that would make them healthier. This is because knowledge alone is not enough to bring about changes in behaviours. A lot of unhealthy habits are actually coping mechanisms which cannot be changed without first addressing the issue that lies at their root. You can’t get someone to suddenly stop eating cake if this is the only way they know to cope with their stress at work or their loneliness. Someone will never want to stop drinking if they are using this to manage their depression or to cope with an unfulfilling job. Nobody would want to exercise more if it just feels safer to go home and watch TV rather than going to a gym where they face the possibility of being judged for being obese. Whilst willpower alone will allow them to change their behaviours in the short-term, at some point the stress/unfulfilling job/boredom/loneliness etc. will just cause them to go back to their unhealthy habit.
In order to change behaviours in a sustainable way you need to understand WHY someone engages in a particular behaviour – you need to understand what benefit they are deriving from that behaviour. You also need to resolve the problem that lies at the root of why an individual is engaging in a behaviour in the first place. At the root of most unhealthy behaviours lies something to do with an individual’s mental or emotional health. If someone is over-eating it is very rarely because they do not understand that salad is healthier for them than cake – it is more often the case that they are using food in times of boredom/loneliness/sadness/tiredness/stress etc. If someone is not getting enough hours sleep – it is not because they don’t think they should be sleeping more but because they are so anxious that they lie for hours in bed unable to sleep. If someone is drinking more that they should, it is very rarely because they are not aware of the dangers of alcohol – it more often that they feel a social situation without alcohol would be boring or alcohol is a welcome stress-reliever at the end of a tough day. It is often easier just to stick with the unhealthy habit than to try and unpick and deal with the issue that underlies it.
When it comes to our lifestyle – the choices people make often reflect the state of their mental or emotional health. Drinking/over-eating/taking drugs etc. are all often ways to cope with stress/emotions/mental health issues. So teaching people what to do to be healthier always has to also ask them why they are engaging in their current behaviours. You can’t deprive someone of their coping mechanism without first resolving the issue that they are using food/alcohol/drugs etc. to self-treat.