Change yourself? If only it were that simple …
20 Jan 2020
We are, right now, in the middle of National Obesity Awareness Week, an initiative started by the National Obesity Forum. With many of us pledging radical lifestyle changes for the new year, the timing's no coincidence.
In the UK, the top three New Year’s Resolutions are, according to a recent YouGov article, getting more exercise, losing weight and dieting - in that order and by a considerable margin. These are the goals we tell ourselves we'll accomplish … just because the calendar ticked up a digit.
We're also about to hit Blue Monday. So-called because it's cold, it's dark, we're all gutted to be back at work, and because lovely Christmas is a distant memory. It's also because our New Year's Resolutions are, by now, dead in the water. We've had a drink, we've sacked off the gym, we've had a pizza or two…
According to the University of Scranton, 80% of those who make a New Year’s Resolution will fail by February. By the end of the summer only 8% will still be on track. By and large that number will halve again by the end of the year. Just 4% actually keep a New Year’s Resolution in tact.
So if you're one of the 96% that has knackered (or is bound to knacker) your New Year pledge then well done on being human.
We think that by trying really, really, really hard we can alter our ways and our wiring. But behavioural scientists will tell you that achieving dramatic goals, often on a whim, is nearly impossible without personalised and appropriate interventions. We can't undo decades' worth of established behaviour patterns and cell activity that has been pulsing for a lifetime. Help is required.
Few of us can undo our own thinking … with our own thinking. Establishing a behavioural change – the kind that's needed to manage an issue now and stay vigilant well into the future – rarely works without expertise and consistent guidance.
Some facts about obesity
Because the top three New Year’s Resolutions all involve diet and fitness, and it's National Obesity Week, let's look at some stats.
According to the most recent UK parliamentary report on obesity, the nation's weight has spiked only recently. Between 2006 and 2016, the proportion of adults who were either overweight or obese didn't change much. But 2017 returned the highest ever recorded level of obesity in England at 28.7%. In Scotland, 29% of adults are obese.
Without getting too bogged down in the numbers, there are clear correlations between income and obesity. Obesity is much more likely in deprived areas than affluent ones.
Also, if you are disabled you're 11% more likely to be overweight or obese. And a rule of thumb: the more education you have the less likely you are to be overweight.
The impacts of any of the above factors – financial health, disability and educational performance (or that of parents) – begins to impact our weight from an early age. Hence while childhood obesity statistics, by and large, follow the same geographical and economic patterns as in adults.
Application, motivation and consistency
As we said in the intro, if we could successfully change our habits and behaviour on our own, New Year’s Resolutions wouldn't have a 4% success rate.
Tackling obesity, shedding a few extra pounds, or taking control in another lifestyle area - none are easy. Habits (and especially damaging habits) bury themselves in our psyche for hugely complicated practical, emotional, physiological and psychological reasons. As individuals we don't necessarily have the skills to dismantle the triggers and explanations for our vices and crutches.
Many wrongly think that problem behaviour – overeating for example – is an education issue. For some it may be - but if simply handing over information was the key, the government would be making bigger progress in tackling not just obesity but a number of social ills.
Changing behaviour is not about knowledge but a combination of knowledge, application and motivation. We need reasons why we should change – and while new year new start is a motivation … it's not a strong one.
True motivation is complex. There's no one-size-fits all. If there was we'd simply talk up the health impacts of excess weight and watch Brits make a beeline for the gym.
Motivation takes dozens of forms and means different things to different people. All of us are unique; a patchwork of genetics, emotions and experiences. Some of us are motivated by a need to please others; some by the thought of being the best; some need peer pressure; some wish to preserve health or image; some need a buddy or a guru. Some drive forward based on hate; others fear; others a financial incentive; others love. And so on.
Consistency plays a huge part too. There's a big difference between intensity and consistency. Six-week-abs, Stoptober and Veganuary … these are finite projects. Given the right short-term motivation, people can give ourselves intense goals and reach them. Human beings are results-orientated creatures.
Intensity tells a better story. We like to hear about six-week abs and 'look-what-I-accomplished-in-eight-weeks'. But consistency, which is more meaningful, means longer, more incremental and duller progress.
How do I tackle change?
There are two short answers: first - get help. Doctors, nutritionists, psychologists. Unless you're an outlier (one of the four in 100 people who can change themselves) then in all probability you’ll fail fast.
The second is consistency: anyone can change for a month, but true behavioural change is altering established patterns for the long term for the sake of lasting health / wellbeing / contentment / happiness. Crash-fasting and four-week fad diets … sure, we can do those, but none will address underlying behaviours and patterns.
So New Year’s Resolutions? Don't worry if you flunked it - you're one of the 96%. You're normal and in good company. When we don't hit our New Year’s Resolutions it's a window into a wider issue: changing is much harder and way more complex than we think.
These days we're told we should be in control; manage our destiny; failure is weakness … but it's just not that simple.
Weight loss, smoking, drinking, fitness – changing behaviours isn't about easy answers or intensive projects. It's complicated and long term, it's about knowledge AND motivation AND consistency.
The best first step? A resolution to get help.
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