You may be reading this having, like me, had a week or so of excess. Apparently the average person consumes 6000 calories on Christmas Day alone and the average weight gain over the festive period is five pounds (or 2 kilos). It is for reasons like this, and the tradition of the New Year being seen as a new start, that leads many people to make New Year’s resolutions. Often such resolutions are directly health-related – ‘I must lose weight’; ‘I must stop smoking’; ‘I must exercise more’; ‘I must drink less alcohol’. Sound familiar?
Changing behaviour might involve starting something new and engaging in a different behaviour or giving up something. Whatever it is, it is undoubtedly extremely hard – as anyone who has tried to change their behaviour will know. Psychologists have invested a huge amount of time and resources into describing and explaining why people do (or do not) change their behaviour. The primary purpose of these efforts is to try to establish how people might be better supported to make healthier choices hopefully leading to healthier outcomes. A number of different theories have been put forward such as, for example, the Health Belief Model, the Trans-Theoretical Model and the Theory of Planned Behaviour. For more detail about these and other models please see Chapter 6. However, the extent to which theories such as these are able to predict behaviour is limited. So what else is going on?
Much attention is paid to four specific ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle practices. These are (not surprisingly) smoking, alcohol consumption, diet and exercise. Recent research led by David Buck (Buck and Frosini, 2012) has established that these less healthy behaviours tend to appear in ‘clusters’ (or ‘co-occur’). That is, if a person engages in one unhealthy behavioural practice, they are more likely to engage in another. This results in what is called ‘multiple lifestyle risk’. Although we have seen general downward trend in the major unhealthy behaviours in England over the last few years, closer examination of the data shows that this is not evenly distributed across the whole population. There are clear differences according to socio-economic status and educational attainment. In short this means that the least well off in society fare worse in terms of the four behaviours identified as carrying the greatest risk to health. This, in turn, contributes to greater health inequalities. Buck and his colleagues are advocating for changes in policy and practice which support people in this position – ‘improving the health of the poorest, fastest’. For more information about David Buck’s work see the following website: www.kingsfund.org.uk.
Behaviour is complex and trying to change it is hard. We need to appreciate however, that single types of behaviour (smoking, unhealthy eating, drinking to excess, not exercising regularly) do not occur within a vacuum and that many factors within our social, economic and political environment impact on what we do and why we do it.
Finally, if you are trying to change any behaviour then good luck! Let us know how you get on.