But what if the person you’re worried about isn’t you? What if instead you’re worried about the wellbeing of a spouse, a friend, or one of your children? What can you do to help them change for the better?
Here are some suggestions:
Are they aware of the risk they’re taking?
It may be, for example, that your friend grew up in a household where everyone ate a high fat, high sugar diet without questioning its health value. Or perhaps your child believes that, because they’re young, they can get away with not taking exercise. If so, your first task is to offer them some well documented facts. As Alexander Rothman and colleagues at the University of Minnesota found, it’s preferable to offer specific information and to emphasise the benefits of the desirable alternative, rather than to point out the perils of persisting with bad habits.
Do they know what they should do, or only what to avoid doing?
It’s surprising how many of us know it’s unwise to eat lots of sugar or that it’s unhealthy to spend so much time sitting down, but we haven’t devised specific alternatives. Your best approach here is first to be a good role model; to behave as you hope your loved one will—and second, to make it really easy for them to opt for a healthier alternative. You could, for example, get rid of the sugary biscuits at home and replace them with fresh fruit and healthy snack bars. Or if you drive your child to school, you could park several streets away and walk with them to the school gate. Or instead of driving to somewhere with your spouse make time to stroll wherever you are going to instead.
Do they feel that making the change is too daunting?
It’s quite a leap to go from eating cakes and crisps after school to eating fruit instead, or from being totally sedentary to taking 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day. Help your loved one break the ultimate goal into achievable steps, so each change is small enough they can incorporate it into their routine immediately. Then encourage them to keep at each change for at least three weeks before making the next improvement. These small doable steps will give them the confidence to keep moving forward to the greater goal.
At first you might encourage them with a reward—treat your partner to an evening out, or let your child stay up later at the weekend.
In the long term, however, try not to rely on external rewards. Alfie Kohn, an American author and lecturer, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review about the value of intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. He cites convincing evidence proving that extrinsic rewards only encourage new behaviours in the short term. Lasting change, he argues, is only possible once an individual becomes aware of the reward inherent in the new, healthier behaviour—more energy, better reasoning power, and so on.