You hear it all the time: shift your eating habits; move more; make this or that other healthy lifestyle change. By reading publications like this newsletter, you are learning what changes to make. But how do you get yourself to actually make—and sustain—those changes?
“There are a number of evidence-supported behavior change theories,” says Sara C. Folta, PhD, who teaches the behavior theory class at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “The strongest evidence related to behavior change with regard to diet and physical activity is the idea of self-efficacy.” Simply put, self-efficacy is confidence in your ability to do something. The term was coined by psychologist Albert Bandura in 1977. Research has since linked high self-efficacy to greater ability to deal with adversity and stress, better performance at work or in school, and healthier lifestyle habits.
Self-Efficacy. There are four main areas thought to influence beliefs in our own self-efficacy:
- Performance Outcomes. If you have succeeded at something once, you are more likely to believe you can do it again. You may even have the confidence to take on a greater challenge. If you fail, your feelings of self-efficacy can go down. “It’s critical to choose appropriate goals,” says Folta. “If, for example, you get winded walking up a flight of stairs, joining a marathon team will reinforce that you cannot be physically active. But if the task is too easy and gives you the sense that anybody can do it, you’re not demonstrating to yourself that you can overcome. It might take some trial and error to find the right level for yourself.”
- Vicarious Experience. “Seeing someone like yourself succeed gives you a sense you can do it, too,” says Folta. These social role models must be similar to you. Your friend may have greatly improved their health working with a personal trainer and hiring a chef to cook healthy meals, but their experience is not applicable to you unless you have the means to do the same. “Think about the friends or people in your network who are employing a behavior you strive for,” says Folta. “Ask them how they do it. Get their stories of success.”
- Verbal Persuasion. Encouragement and discouragement influence self-efficacy. If you receive positive feedback, you’re more likely to believe you can succeed. “It’s very helpful to have someone who believes in you,” says Folta. Verbal persuasion can also come from a coach. “A good coach will offer encouragement (I know you can do it!),” Folta explains, “as well as constructive feedback (You’re really making progress. If you make this small change, you’ll get even better results.).”
- Physiological Feedback. Your body’s natural response to a stressful situation can create a negative feedback loop. “If trying something new makes you feel a bit anxious, you may feel your heart race,” says Folta. “This can make you more anxious.” Instead of interpreting this physiological reaction as a sign that you’re not cut out for this new activity or behavior, Folta suggests you reframe it. “See your racing heart as a sign that you have added energy to infuse into this task,” she says. “Use it to perform better.” Increased knowledge can also help break this anxiety cycle. “I knew a woman with heart trouble who was afraid to take a brisk walk because her increased heart rate made her think she might have a heart attack,” says Folta. “Talking to her healthcare provider and finding out what physiological reactions were safe and normal and which were cause for concern gave her the confidence she needed to increase her level of physical activity.”
You can also strive to create a positive, low-stress environment. If you’re trying a new healthy recipe for the first time, for example, don’t make it for a dinner party. If you’re concerned a new dish won’t come out well or you won’t like it, choose a simple recipe that doesn’t take a lot of time or cost a lot of money. This creates less stress if it doesn’t work out, which increases the likelihood you’ll be willing to try something new again.
Other Tips. “In addition to believing in your ability to do something and nurturing an environment that encourages your success, taking baby steps is essential to successful behavior change,” says Folta. “For example, rather than deciding to make a massive change to a vegan diet, start by incorporating one new vegetable this week. Do some research and buy one that seems easy to cook and incorporate into dishes or meals you already like. If you don’t like the new food, frame it as an information gather-ing experience: you learned you don’t like that! Each step provides information that helps you determine what to try next.”
Another skill related to self-efficacy is visualization. Envisioning yourself performing a certain behavior or being successful in a given situation may help you believe you can do it.
How you frame failure is also important. If you taste a new food and don’t like it, for example, remind yourself this doesn’t mean you don’t like healthy food! You just don’t like this particular food cooked this particular way. If you try a workout that’s too hard or not enjoyable, it doesn’t mean you’ll never get in shape, it just means you haven’t found the right activity for you.
You can make positive behavior changes. Believe in yourself, and stay positive!