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Our lifestyle matters when it comes to our health. Despite most people knowing what we should be doing to stay healthy, many of us struggle to engage in those activities. Our report 'Easier Said than Done' explains why that may be and what we can do about it.  

Around this time of year, people start thinking about how to make meaningful changes in their lives, often relating to health. Yet many of us struggle to stick with these new year’s resolutions to live healthily. The problem is mostly not lack of knowledge. We have abundant information relating to the amounts and types of diet, exercise, rest and communication that help with our physical and mental health, yet we often struggle to follow those recommendations and actively manage our health.

This paper is not about new year’s resolutions as such, but more about the broader want/should dilemma of when what we know we should be doing (which is often the new year’s resolution) is not aligned with what we want to do right now, on a day to day basis, and how this dilemma may influence our likelihood to make meaningful changes to our health-related behaviours.

This short proposition paper, supported by Philips, aims to provoke thought around how we can actively manage our health and reduce the risk factors associated with many serious diseases.

First, we categorise healthy living behaviours into four categories: walking, eating, sleeping, and talking, easily remembered by the mnemonic WEST. These behaviours are part of a broader social and cultural pattern of living to be considered when trying to change our health-related behaviour.

An important issue here is that many healthy lifestyle injunctions are perceived as a loss of something immediate – loss of calories, loss of comfort, loss of convenience – whereas the benefits are psychologically more distant because their accrual is uncertain and in the future. The psychological closeness of the losses tip the behavioural balance towards keeping to the status quo and not changing our behaviour. Yet this is a poor strategy for the medium- and long-term, because for many people, we stand to gain so much through improved health and lower risk factors of disease by changing our lifestyles.

Second, there may be specific behavioural hurdles to implementing health-related changes. In other words, certain aspects of our human nature may undermine our ability or motivation to live healthily. These include our tendencies of optimism (which may dim the reality of future consequences), habit (sticking to our existing ways), empathy gaps (failing to empathise with our future healthy or sick selves), and myopia (being short-sighted). We also face other specific hurdles relating to the routines and the practices of each of the healthy-living components reviewed. These hurdles reinforce the ‘want’ behaviours over the ‘should’ behaviours.

Finally, insights from behavioural science provide some strategies to help us to initiate change in our lives – whether as a new year’s resolution or at any other point in time. An initial change can be difficult, but as this new behaviour becomes habitual it will be easier to maintain as part of a lifestyle of healthy living.

This paper is a stimulus to a broader programme of public engagement on issues of health and wellbeing at the RSA. The hope is that it will provoke thought around how to facilitate healthy living through a variety of approaches, not least by helping us to follow through on good intentions of actively managing our health.

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