What influences changes in personal behavior

The timeless sayings “you can’t teach and old dog new tricks” and “you can’t change the spots on a leopard” speak to an inevitable fact of life: Behavior modification can be challenging. In daily life, the continual struggle to do things differently lends credence to the idea of behavior change as a meandering, obstacle-ridden and seemingly endless journey.

Throughout history, many scholars have likened behavior change to a roadmap—one that is reflective of both well-traveled pathways and previously unchartered territories. Given one’s continual quest for an optimal self, it is safe to say that behavior change represents an ongoing learning process that has no definitive end. As suggested by renowned change theorist James Prochaska, “change is a process, not an event”—a point that underscores the importance of viewing the change process not as a single event, but as a series of successive stages.

As many people who have attempted, but subsequently failed to alter their behavior can attest, efforts to change are often met with unforeseen barriers that cause a person to stray from their intended target behavior. Using exercise behavior as a prime example, it becomes clear that change is not a linear process—but a phenomenon that is influenced by a plethora of mental, emotional and environmental factors.

As with the stages of human development, the behavior change process follows a similar hierarchical, stage-based sequence of events. First, a person may not be readily aware of their need to address sedentary behaviors because such behaviors may have yet to be identified as problematic. For example, many people—especially those who have never exercised—perhaps ignore recommended guidelines for exercise because they have yet to experience the ill health effects associated with failure to engage in routine exercise. However, an initial thought process about exercise might be actively, albeit silently, underway given the person’s exposure to the well-publicized dangers of remaining sedentary—perhaps as the result of a routine medical check-up that motivates him/her to begin thinking about joining a gym or engaging in a home-based exercise program.

Eventually, the person becomes increasingly aware of the role that their health choices (i.e., being physically active versus remaining sedentary) have played in their own health challenges and limitations. Such awareness reflects an important transition, as it is often associated with initial contemplation about one’s need to increase their level of physical activity.

As one continues to contemplate the idea of exercise, he/she has perhaps made a silent commitment to exercise in the near future—perhaps several months from now—and may have even taken incremental steps toward buying gym clothes, workout DVDs, or any other media that promote the idea of exercise adherence. Given the nature of the change process, a person who becomes increasingly committed to the idea of exercise often experiences a tenuous set of feelings related to indecision and concerns about adherence.

Finally, the person begins to exercise—yet, perhaps not consistently or with complete adherence to exercise prescription. However, one’s initial exercise patterns provide an important sign of progress: Observable behaviors against which change can be measured. Here, the number of hours per day or the number of days spent exercising throughout the week provide a framework that allows for the person to chart progress. Gradual increases in the frequency, intensity, and duration of exercise serve to reinforce exercise motivation, and reflect important talking points for discussions between the exerciser and a trainer, family, or friends.

The importance of this phase lies in the idea that the maintaining an exercise routine becomes progressively within reach; the instances in which one “feels good” as the result of an exercise session can significantly reinforce their continued motivation to exercise. Interestingly, the American College of Sports Medicine cites this stage as the phase in which drop out and/or attrition is experienced by approximately 50% of all new exercise clients within the six-month mark. Therefore, those who support the newly established exerciser should perhaps take a compassionate and sensitive approach to discussion about goals, objectives, and perceived barriers as he/she progresses on the behavior change continuum.

After many months of engaging in routine exercise, the person enters a phase in which exercise behavior not only becomes routine, but maintainable. At this time, the person often experiences a sense of goal attainment which serves to prevent a regression to old, sedentary behaviors. One’s ability to maintain their exercise behavior can lead to a permanent adherence to exercise—a stage of change that can last for an indeterminate period of time.

Finally, it can be said that old sedentary behaviors have been terminated when feelings of psychological stability (i.e., being devoid of temptation, experiencing a sense of complete self-control over the administration of behavior) prevail. Here, the terminated (i.e., sedentary) behavior has become a historical footnote, while the maintained (i.e., exercise) behavior has become a central mindset, a lifestyle attribute and perhaps a core value of one’s health philosophy.

Through what often amounts to a great deal of introspection and self-analysis, the exerciser eventually views themselves as having “changed”. Throughout this process, the person has attained goals, acquired information, adopted new values. As previously mentioned, access to supportive resources is critical to maintaining pro-health behaviors. As one acclimates to their new sense of self, a continued exploration of the what, when, why and how of the change process reinforces the termination of old behaviors.

Such an exploration is often reflective of the conviction, discipline, self-care and pride that catalyzed the individual’s ability to affect change. And while the notion of behavioral relapse is perhaps always knocking at the door, perhaps a combined fear of a return to an unacceptable state and a profound pride in one’s new sense of self are catalysts for lasting behavior change and best health practices.