Changing your behaviour is a very difficult thing to do. How many times have you set a New Year’s resolution only to break it before the end of January? I’ve done this countless times. You have good intentions and even when you think you’ve set a pretty realistic goal you just don’t seem to be able to sustain it for any length of time. You can start out super determined and positive yet, within a matter of days, you’re justifying to yourself why it doesn’t matter if you make an exception on that day and you can start again tomorrow … except you don’t. I don’t claim to be an expert on behavioural change, I have more questions than answers, but it is something I have become more and more interested in as I realise how closely it’s linked to physical activity. If we want to help people get and stay active, we need to look at how to help them change their daily behaviours and not just offer them more and more activity options and tell them they should give it a go.
Here are some points to consider to make successful, long-lasting changes:
Do you want to change?
To form a new habit or behaviour, you need to want to do it, really want to do it. To be able to see why the change would benefit you and what might happen to you if you don’t make that change. If you’re ambivalent about it and can’t really see its value to you then it’s going to be an uphill struggle which is unlikely to succeed. Sometimes we are well-meaning, reaching out to those around us and trying to encourage them to be active and we can get frustrated when they don’t seem to engage. Perhaps they are just not wanting or ready for change. The best example I saw of this as a doctor was people who didn’t want to give up smoking. I could explain the benefits of stopping and the harms of carrying on but some people would simply say they knew all that, they liked smoking and didn’t want to stop. That’s fine. I would respect their decision. You can only make a lasting change if you really want to. But it may be that on enquiring again at a later time that they feel differently and are ready for change.
Questions to ask yourself:
How will I feel if I make this change?
What are the consequences if I don’t make this change?
How important is this change to me?
What’s stopping you?
Change can be intimidating and scary. It can involve moving out of your comfort zone which some people find easier to do than others. Barriers can be simple, practical things involving health, time and other commitments. They can also be trickier psychological barriers such as poor self-worth, lack of confidence and fear. The thing I’ve discovered about barriers is that we often perceive them as immovable and permanent but usually they aren’t. With encouragement and support, the helpful eyes of someone else assessing the barrier, imagination and perseverance, they can be overcome. However, unless we find out what is preventing someone from making a change, listening to them, really understanding their point of view and, importantly, creating a workable solution with them, then behavioural change is unrealistic. Differentiating between an excuse and a barrier might seem hard but if someone wants to change then through talking, it’s usually easy to identify what’s an excuse that can be quickly dissipated and what’s a barrier that needs a plan to resolve.
Questions to ask yourself:
What is stopping me make this change?
What will help me make this change?
Who can help me make this change?
Change is hard!
Yes, change is hard but there are times when behavioural change is easier than others. We’re more open to change during transitions in our lives. These are times when we may be a little vulnerable or perhaps points when some life reassessment is going on. This is why health care professionals are in a really good position to invoke behavioural change. Not only do their words carry credibility and weight but they often see people at times of transition. For example, being given a diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes, the first step in treatment is usually a change in lifestyle, involving healthy eating and exercise. That patient may be well aware that they should be eating better and moving more and have tried very hard to do so but when faced with this diagnosis, they can see that the change in behaviour is so valuable to them, the benefits they will gain and the serious consequences of not making a change are obvious. This is a huge opportunity to help someone towards a healthier life. Just because it’s obvious though, it doesn’t make it easy and that person still needs ongoing support.
It’s September as I write this and my children have just gone back to school. Like many parents across the country I’ll be getting back into the routines of school runs, after school activities, homework etc. I’m not certain yet exactly what that routine will be as some activities are changing days and times. This is an ideal time to make a behavioural change. One of the ways to become more active is to make exercise a habit, part of your normal routine and there’s no better time to do this than when your schedule is changing. Perhaps it’s back to school, a new job, a house move, whatever it is, grab it and see the transition as an opportunity to rewire your daily habits.
Questions to ask yourself:
When I tried to make this change before, what went wrong?
How can I make space for this change in my daily life?
What can I do today to begin the change?
Relapse is part of the journey. 
Behavioural change is an ongoing thing. It’s rare that someone decides to make a change and just does it, for the rest of their lives. It’s much more usual to keep with a change for a while and then come up against some barriers, perhaps drift in and out a bit. We’re often good at giving support at the initial stages, helping someone to start being active and then feeling it’s ‘job done’ and walking away. Most people need some ongoing support and encouragement way beyond that start date. Group and social exercise is great for this. Even the most focused and motivated need a helping hand from time to time. A reminder how far they’ve come, a gentle push in the right direction, some re-energising. We need to recognise that in our own journeys too. It’s easy to think we’ve failed, fall into a negative thought spiral and beat ourselves up. Knowing that we’re normal, that it’s ok to ask for help to get back on target is all part of the journey of change.
Questions to ask yourself:
What change have I made successfully before?
What can I put in place to make this new change successful? 
How am I going to celebrate making this change?
Change is complex and hard. This is only a small introduction to some basic principles of change that I’ve been fascinated by. I’d love to know what changes you’ve made in your life. Whether there are any behaviours that you want to adopt but just don’t seem to be able to. Share your barriers and keys to success in the comments so we can all benefit!
Featured image: Gratisography

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  1. Make changes with others that way you can support each other when it gets hard and celebrate each other’s successes. Make new routines- eventually new behaviour become habitual. Be kind to yourself!! For me getting fitter just feels so good and has had a big pay off psychologically too. Great article

  2. Make changes with others that way you can support each other when it gets hard and celebrate each other’s successes. Make new routines- eventually new behaviour become habitual. Be kind to yourself!! For me getting fitter just feels so good and has had a big pay off psychologically too. Great article

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