Photo Credit: Patricia Espedal

According to the U.S. department of Health and Human Services, less than 5% of adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity each day; only one in three adults receive the recommended amount of physical activity each week. The typical American diet exceeds the recommended intake for calories, sugars, refined grains, sodium and saturated fats while not getting the recommended levels of vegetables, fruits, and whole-grains.

We know that regular exercise and healthy diet reduces risks for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease as well as improving mental health; however, less than half of Americans are exercising as much as they should be – while eating less than ideal diets!

So what are we missing? What is it that actually helps people lead healthy lives?

Certainly, education about health contributes to people achieving healthy habits. However, education and information isn’t always enough; many times people know what they should or shouldn’t be doing but they still are not able to achieve health changes. It is extremely difficult to make lasting changes without successfully changing the behaviors that influence health. Often times, the missing piece to promoting health lies in the science of behavior-change.

Behavioral science can provide many tools to help individuals change their behavior to improve quality of life in a variety of ways. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach to produce significant behavior change with lasting results across a variety of areas including treatment adherence, increasing exercise, decreasing sedentary time, decreasing smoking and much more.

Behavior Analysts specialize in understanding and improving behavior for a wide range of clients and in various settings. Behavior Analysts are focused on solving tangible problems with practical solutions that produce measurable outcomes. They consider the reasons why certain behaviors are occurring too much or not enough and then find ways to shift those specific behavior patterns. Some Behavior Analysts focus specifically on health-related behaviors to help individuals improve health goals with diet, exercise, stress management, treatment adherence, physical training and more (see BehaviorFit and InJewel). They can help clients identify specific behaviors that influence health, what barriers stand in the way to those goals, and how to effectively take action.

Taking actions toward or away from health are all human behaviors which can be analyzed and modified. The science of Behavior Analysis looks at the interplay between environmental variables and behaviors; as well as reasons why behavior is occurring, motivational factors and how to shift the environment to encourage positive behaviors. The context around behavior, such as what happens prior to and following a behavior, is very important and provides information about how to understand and shape behaviors. This information can be used to create an action plan to increase the desirable health behaviors and decrease the undesirable behaviors.

The action plan involves goals that are achievable, individualized and objectively defined in order to measure and monitor progress. Methods to change behavior may involve some of the following evidence-based strategies: self-management, self-monitoring, values-based goal setting, shaping, reinforcement, teaching replacement behaviors using Behavior Skills Training, performance feedback, visual feedback, behavioral momentum, environmental adaptations, contingency management, social accountability, response cost and more.

Behavior Analysts also consider ways to understand and influence motivation for health behaviors. Goals should always be connected to a person’s core values in order to generate natural motivation. Identifying values is often a first step in choosing health goals and committing to actions. Learning strategies to manage your own behavior can have beneficial results for your health as well as your personal life.

With an epidemic of chronic health conditions in our country, now more than ever, we need the science of behavior to help individuals improve their health in ways that will be effective and long-lasting. Behavior Analysts can be an asset to health care teams by providing the expertise in behavior-change technology and collaborating to support clients with the behavior changes necessary to improve health outcomes.

Finn, H.E., & Watson, R.A. (2017). The use of Health Coaching to Improve Health Outcomes: Implications for Applied Behavior Analysis. The Psychological Record, 67, 181-187.