If you’re serious about your new year’s resolution to be more physically active or eat healthier foods, you need to employ the best science and strategize — not fantasize, according to a University of Victoria researcher.
“Typically, for the average person making an intention, about 50 per cent will fail to follow through, even in the short term of two weeks,” says professor Ryan Rhodes, director of the Behavioural Medicine Lab at the University of Victoria.
And if it’s a new behaviour one is trying to achieve, two-thirds will fail, Rhodes said.
“It’s quite a phenomenon that repeats itself every year and throughout the year as well as in terms of health-behaviour change. It’s a major issue.”
To help translate intentions into action, Rhodes, an author and professor in health psychology, has developed evidence-based tips — ways to motivate people to become more active.
His research focuses on three main areas: motivation (wanting to do it), self-regulation (planning strategies to do it) and reflexive processes (creating habits to ensure you keep doing it).
Each category independently improves the likelihood of follow-through. Combined, they increase the odds of success by up to 25 per cent, said Rhodes, adding the most exciting research is coming from the area of habit formation and self-affirmation.
It’s no surprise that the most popular new year resolutions involve trying to get fit or changing eating behaviours, but though well-intentioned, people might not understand how they set themselves up for failure, Rhodes said.
First, people focus on outcome, he said, rather than embracing the behaviour or activity itself.
“We are all interested in the long-term outcome, but are we interested in this behaviour and do we find it pleasant or unpleasant or interesting or boring?”
Research on motivation shows we avoid things that don’t feel good and embrace things that do feel good, said Rhodes.
“Even though we have the best of intentions, we will undermine our intentions if this has been an unpleasant experience,” he said. “We have to look at how to make it as pleasing as possible, because whether it’s eating your vegetables or going to the gym when you’re tired, these are the first things we’ll blow off.”
Everyone agrees that exercise feels good when it’s over, but aside from that, it varies, he said. Some people enjoy physical activity, if it’s not incredibly vigorous, but views of moderate physical activity range — some dread it, while others find it pleasant.
“And lo and behold, it’s that experience during the activity that predicts who will engage in it further and follow through on their intentions,” said Rhodes. “From a motivational perspective, that’s one of the very important and critical factors to consider: ‘How is this going to feel, and how can I make it feel better?’ ”
If an activity has failed or felt unpleasant in the past, there’s no reason to think it will work this year.
“That might be the most important decision right there, is trying something new rather than trying the same old thing that didn’t work last year,” said Rhodes.
Beyond motivation, he said, we must become “master planners” of how, when and where we’ll perform this new behaviour, set priorities, put in place strategies for when roadblocks occur and monitor our progress.
“Just having the will without the way is going to be very challenging in today’s society. Most people live very busy lives and we’re always trying to add things to our life — trying to add physical activity to a life bursting at the seams with things that must be done or want to be done.”
Research has found that success is more likely if people set a schedule for physical activity, establish an individual and comfortable pace, and find activities and challenges that are enjoyable and include a social element.
The third big area on the road to success is habit formation and self-affirmation, Rhodes said.
Repetition — doing an activity in the same place or time, such as a walk after dinner, for example — can allow people to fall into routines where environmental factors and cues help automate the behaviour.
“If you form habits, it allows your body to go partially on autopilot,” Rhodes said.
Research shows habits formed around the six-week mark, he said. “If you can stay motivated enough and stick to a similar routine, in about six weeks, people find it easier to keep going and form a habit.”
Trying to follow through on an activity that’s always at a different time and place can force someone to fall back on motivation and planning, removing one of the main factors that help lead to success.
Also built into success is identifying as a healthy eater or fit person, for example.
When people self-identify as the person they want to become or become again, Rhodes said, “that itself is very powerful.”
“As humans, we do not like to vary from what we think we are. It causes us a great amount of distress. It goes back to early psychological research on cognitive dissonance. “
What doesn’t generally help, oddly enough, is information on the health benefits of physical activity, for instance.
“Having knowledge of all the health benefits and mental-health benefits of physical activity doesn’t correspond with who follows through,” said Rhodes, who argues that those benefits are nonetheless great.
Physical activity is instrumental in helping prevent at least 25 chronic diseases, as well as depression and anxiety. About 150 minutes a week of moderate or vigorous activity is recommended, although anything is better than nothing.
“If physical activity could be put into a pill, it would clearly be the most important prescription we could ever take,” Rhodes said.
Keen to boost your family's fitness? UVic lab wants to hear from you
The University of Victoria’s Behavioural Medicine Lab has several studies underway for which it is now recruiting families who want to become more physically active.
“If you are a family that can be more active, we might have a study,” said Ryan Rhodes, director of the lab.
Rhodes, the principal investigator, said there are more than five trials now recruiting participants of different ages and stages, including new parents and parents of teens.
One study now recruiting participants is looking for families with at least one child, ages three to 12, who does less than 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a day. At least one parent must participate.
Eligible families will receive educational materials and strategies to help their children be more physically active.
Call 250-472-5288 or email bml@UVic.ca to find out more about this study and others focused on families and physical activity.