The Psychology of Making Healthier Choices

Judging from the popular media, many of us have something in common—a shared frustration. It’s the experience of wanting to make important lifestyle changes (like exercising more, eating better and getting enough rest) but having trouble "following through" and actually achieving those goals.

For some, this has become a recurring pattern. And—recognizing the pattern—many of these same people will choose to give up altogether, believing they simply don’t have the self-discipline to succeed. But the truth is that success isn’t just about raw willpower. It’s also about having specific strategies in place to give yourself a psychological edge as you make changes and create new lifestyle habits.

In order to help you develop these sorts of strategies, we've gone through a number of recent health-, diet-, and exercise-related studies and extracted five psychological tips from them that you can use when trying to achieve your own health and wellness goals.

1.    Set goals for yourself, but make them realistic goals. Several studies have indicated that setting specific goals for yourself when starting a diet or exercise program is good, and will help you to succeed. But the most important tip to remember is that the goals should be realistic and achievable. In other words, don't just set yourself the goal of losing 20 kgs as fast as you can. Be more realistic and aim for losing one or two pounds per week (which is often cited as a safe rate of weight loss) or every two weeks, which is more doable. This type of a goal will involve less “pain and deprivation”, making it more likely that you will be able to stick with it consistently over time.

2.    Become aware of the consequences of your choices. In a recent study, teens were exposed to signs that "translated" the calorie count of sugary soft drinks into the number of miles they'd have to walk to burn off the calories in a 500ml drink. Overall sales of the high-calorie drinks were lower when the signs were posted, and sales of large sizes of the drinks were also lower. Sales of water and non-sugary drinks increased. Most interesting, the effect of seeing the signs lasted for six weeks after they were removed. The more you know, the better your choices will be.

3.    Exercise self-control to avoid temptations. A study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that one of the traits of people with high self-control was that they avoided situations that would tempt them. For example, asked to take an online IQ test and given the choice of a simple black-and-white version or one that had colorful background artwork that changed often, students with high levels of self-control tended to choose the version that offered less distraction. Applying this same idea to achieving your personal health goals, you might be better off avoiding the dessert aisle in the supermarket altogether rather than telling yourself you’ll just buy something small.

4.    Focus on the fun aspects of your exercise program to avoid “reward eating” after workouts. Researchers have recently confirmed a phenomenon that some of us have probably suspected—people who put in the “work” of exercising often “reward” themselves by overeating afterward. In a experimented conducted, participants were asked to take a two-kilometer walk around a lake. Half of them were told it was an "exercise walk," and the other half were told it was a scenic nature walk. The participants were then given lunch, and researchers observed their choices. The group that had been told they were walking for exercise ate 124% more than those who had been told that they were walking for fun. Based on what they saw during their experiment, the researchers recommend that you do whatever you can to make your workout less work and more fun so that you won’t be tempted to "reward yourself" afterward with an extra helping of dessert.