PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

Healthy Weight Management: Environment Helps

Posted on Jun 2, 2011

Get me up on my weight management soap box and you’ll hear me forcefully proclaim that successful weight management has very little do with willpower, it’s actually much more about something we call skillpower: having enough strategies, tips and strategic planning to develop new skills to support ongoing lifestyle change.

As much as the Nike ads would like us to believe we can “Just Do It” — most of us know from personal experience that knowing what to do, even desperately wanting to do, does not translate into lasting behavior change. How many times have we told ourselves, “Today is the day” – we set out with great intentions only to be waylaid by a temptation too strong to resist (name your poison) or “life” getting in the way of exercise plans. Deflated and guilty, we start the cycle over and over again.

Environments can have an influence

I recently read about some interesting research which suggests that, over and above willpower or even skillpower, our environments can have an influence – either positively or negatively – in significant and profound ways that may well be under our radar. According to Dr. Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, almost half of our behavior takes place every day, in the same environments – home, car, school, work, etc. Dr. Wood explains that even though people think they are making choices all the time, many of our repeated behaviors are cued by our everyday environments. “Most people don’t think that the reason they eat fast food at lunch or snack from the vending machine in late afternoon is because these actions are cued by their daily routines, the sight and smell of the food or the location they’re in. They think they’re doing it because they intended to eat then or because they like the food.”

Dr. Wood’s studies demonstrated that people repeat well-practiced behaviors whether they intend to or not. She has also found that physical locations are some of the most powerful behavioral cues. For example, one of her studies demonstrated that college students who transferred to a new university were able to break their TV habit if the TV was in a new location, whereas those students who found their new dorm TV to be in the same place as their old dorm, did not significantly change their viewing habits.

Think about it this way: If you leave a bowl of apples on your counter, are you more likely to eat them than if they are out of sight in your produce drawer? If you’re like me, you’ve no doubt lost count of the number of times you’ve cleared out that drawer of rotting produce! If you removed the comfy cushions on your couch, would you be as likely to spend time watching TV? Trying to avoid a fast food habit? Dr. Wood suggests driving a different route to avoid the visual cue. Similarly, as we like to say in our weight management program, if it’s there, you’ll eat it – and the corollary, if it’s not there, you can’t eat it.

Focusing on triggers

Early on in my career, I worked with smokers to help them quit their cigarette habits. We focused a lot on “triggers” or cues to smoke; how being in certain environments or with particular people, or practicing an everyday behavior (like reading the newspaper, drinking a cup of coffee, or driving a car) could produce at times an overwhelming craving or urge to smoke. Environmental cues and triggers can also work against us – or for us – when working to develop other new health habits. I’ve been working hard (trying to follow doctor’s orders!) to incorporate more strength training into my exercise routine. What has helped is to tie doing certain exercises to my every day “get-ready-in-the-morning” routines. For example, I started doing “wall sits” while I brush my teeth. I’ve put a stability ball near the TV as a cue to do my core work.

What’s the bottom line?

Bottom-line: The more effort we put into problem-solving setting up our environments and cues to work for us – to support habits we’re trying to put in place, or to reduce the cues or ease of practicing behaviors we’d like to avoid — the less we’ll need to rely on willpower; even better, we’ll provide a boost to that skillpower we’re working to develop. Now, to practice what I preach, I need to find a way to get cued to take — and use — those hand weights which have been way too firmly ensconced underneath the TV!

This blog post is contributed by Karen Handy, MPH, a behavioral health educator and manager of nutrition and diabetes education at Palo Alto Medical Foundation. She supports patients making health behavior and lifestyle changes, co-facilitates PAMF’s bariatric support group and writes a blog on weight management and health behavior change for Sutter Health’s MyLifeStages website.  Ms. Handy enjoys spending time with her three children and is interested in reading, running, healthy cooking, hiking and travel.