Yesterday morning, as I hiked up to the ridge near my home, I reflected on my intentions and behaviors. Why has it taken so long to reinstate regular hikes in my life? Why does something that makes me feel so euphoric get pushed to the bottom of my list? Why do I, with access to all the necessary information to make good lifestyle choices, still fall short in making those choices? How can the science of behavior change shine light on ways to sustain the changes I make?
These questions are highly relevant. At least 40 percent of our health is determined by our behaviors. The chronic disease epidemic in our country is fueled by unhealthy behavior choices, often made in stressful sociocultural contexts marked by isolation, overextension and consumption.
Healthy behaviors—regular exercise, good sleep and eating well—mean improved health for individuals, communities and ecosystems. Yet knowing the importance of self-care is insufficient, as is setting New Year’s resolutions (80 percent of which fail by February). What, then, is the key to a healthy lifestyle?
Many behavioral scientists are actively researching this important question. Their emerging findings speak to both the rebellious, pleasure-oriented aspect of my being and the nurturing, disciplined parts.
We often set intentions or make resolutions because we know we “should” exercise 30 minutes a day, five times a week. We “should” eat kale regularly, lose weight and avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar. Perhaps a health professional told us so, or maybe we read it in an article or a book. It could be we earnestly want to make those changes, yet when we approach behavior change from a place of feeling we should do something because we’ve heard it is good for us—especially if the benefit is in the future—it is difficult for our subconscious to steer us to do it.
Our subconscious supports decisions we associate with positive feelings. If something feels like a chore, just one more item on our list of things to do, we probably won’t feel warm and tingly about it, and we are much less likely to do it. Do I get up early and hike, or stay in this cozy bed a bit longer?
We are more likely to sustain behavioral change if the change comes from within, meaning that we truly want to do it, for ourselves. This might sound obvious, but sometimes it is difficult to determine if a desired change is something we truly identify as our own goal, or just another “should.” It is worth reflecting on why we want to start a new behavior—and connect it to immediate feel-good benefits.
For me, reconnecting with hiking returns me to my practices of deep nature connection and all of the profound benefits—from physical to mental to spiritual—that I immediately feel. My whole being comes alive with the pleasure of being out in the natural world, and that increased energy, creativity and joy stays with me long after I’ve come off the trail.
As we identify feel-good benefits, we can also take a position of nurturing self-regard: Caring for my being is important, and I show loving care for myself by consistently making decisions that truly feel good. When we are nurtured and cared for, we are also better able to engage in healthy relationships and find success in our professional or vocational realms.
Pleasure and self-love provide a wonderful foundation for making decisions that lead to a healthy life, but it takes a little effort to establish positive routines. This is where creating supportive structures around self-care comes in. Put the new routine on your calendar and honor it as you would an important meeting. Honoring your commitments to yourself deepens the trust you feel in yourself, and allows you to further your commitments in the future. Sharing the commitment you’ve made with a supportive friend who can lovingly hold you accountable—and with whom you can offer reciprocal support—increases the fun and adds social connection to the equation. More pleasure, more success.
As I shared the wondrous beauty of my morning hike with my children, they felt my joy and wanted to be a part of it too. (So many tiny mushrooms coming up! Brilliant baby grass shoots carpeting the hills in green! And newts!) The next day, we went for a hike together. As we reflected on what a wonderful experience we had, we set a collective intention to hike each week.
Dr. Anna O’Malley is an integrative family and community medicine physician with the Coastal Health Alliance is the founding director of Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden. She loves exploring the intersection of love, connection, vitality and wellbeing. And newts.