A Cup of Coffee: Supporting Behavior Change

Welcome Back!  Last week we talked about the Epstein-Barr virus and it’s potential impact on our health when it affects the immune system.  If you missed that blog and would like to catch up, click HERE.
This week, we visit with a regular contributor, Michelle Jenck.  She gives us some insight into supporting positive behavior changes.  So let’s all grab “A Cup of Coffee” and sit down for a chat…

Supporting Behavior Change

For decades, research has shaped how we approach health behavior change. If you don’t want to get “X,” don’t do “Y.” If you want to have low blood pressure, don’t smoke, avoid salt and reduce stress. Whether between doctor and patient, coach and client or among friends, we are all guilty of giving well-intended advice that falls on deaf ears. Worse, when the person attempts to follow the advice and feels like they fail, they may give up and quit trying altogether.

Fad diets and workout trends are part of this mix. Unfortunately, so are pills, supplements, surgeries and other “quick fixes.” The alternative seems too difficult, too burdensome or just plain impossible. “I can’t do yoga!” Well, yes, you can. It just may not look in reality like what you envision in your mind. “I can’t cook!” Really? Are you sure? Almost anyone can learn how to boil an egg and slice an onion. With the advent of free, on-line tutorials, there really is no longer a place for “can’t” when it comes to behavior change.

So, what’s a health professional to do? How do we take what we know works (and doesn’t work) and help people apply it in their own lives? Moreover, how do we do this at the level of public, or population, health? Decades of educating people has not only not moved the dial on population health but often seems to work against it. Push-back from nutrition and exercise advice is commonplace. People are alienated, defensive or just plain apathetic. Why don’t people want to feel better and live longer, healthier lives? Or do they want these things but just don’t think it can happen for them? My sense is, it is more the latter.

As professionals, and even as mentors and friends to others, we each hold beliefs about which risk factors are most crucial to address, as well as the methods we believe will be most effective in mitigating those risk factors. Of course, these beliefs are largely tied to our own education, background and experience.

There are many evidence-based ways to promote better health. When we present this cacophony of information to people, however, they usually

body, spirit, mind balance

become overwhelmed. The advice may not seem relevant or doable to them, leading them to tune out or disregard the message. To a certain extent, we must share very generalized information in a way that resonates at a personal level, appealing to the knowledge, attitudes and beliefs of the individual that are tied to their innate desire to thrive. Often, these may not even make sense to us. The important thing is that it does to them. It could be something as simple as taking swimming lessons, playing an instrument or learning a foreign language. Anything that helps a person tap into a pleasure center tied to personal growth is enough to get the ball rolling in the right direction.

We must create a message that draws people in – one that is relevant, fun, and inspiring – and one that compels them to action. Talking about activities they enjoyed as a child, might be the key to engaging someone as an adult. If they liked riding a bike, maybe they could see themselves riding with their kids on the neighborhood bike trail. Once a person begins to reflect on and change their behaviors, no matter how seemingly insignificant, it has a ripple effect; both for the individual and the people around them.

Ultimately, this work happens in the minds, hearts and hands of each person and between individuals. As health and wellness advocates, we can shape the message and the environments where it is shared but the rest is up to the individual. A person must be open and aware for these experiences to trigger the epiphanies that lead to change.

We can encourage this sense of openness and optimism by highlighting “small wins.” People tend to minimize their successes and inflate their failures. Pointing out small wins like going for a bike ride or trying a new recipe, is an important strategy in helping people sustain behavior change. It also helps them develop a sense of self-efficacy – the belief they are capable of gaining new skills. From there, it is like a snowball rolling downhill, gathering momentum, fundamentally changing the person from the inside out.



  1. Thank you Tom! You’ll be glad to know I was able to purchase the book you recommended. The content will be very useful in the population health improvement outreach I coordinate here in Oregon.

  2. Michelle,
    This is one of the key challenges in getting people to effect changes in life behaviors that impact their health. Your approach is a good one, baby steps, small changes, observation of results, setting realistic time expectations, and with good humor, encouraging restarts after “failures”. People have to really trust that you want what is best for them and they need to be made aware of the negative effect of the incessant marketing that we are all subjected to from every direction in the health care system, all presented in the name of “education”. I have found that the concept of the individual “internal HMO” being the most critical component in anyone’s health care plan, as presented by Irvin M. Korr, PhD and Rene J. McGovern’s book ‘Living Long and Loving It: Achieving a Healthy and Active Lifestyle’, to be an easily readable presentation that presents the science of basic good health in plain language, and relates the gradual positive change that one man was able to accomplish in midlife. It is Dr. Korr’s life story essentially (from a health mindset perspective), posthumously finished by Dr. McGovern from his collected papers in the AT Still University museum in Kirksville MO. Dr. Korr worked on the book till he was 90, when he ran out of patience with editorial demands. He died at age 94. I lend out copies of the book to my patients when I perceive them to be ready and/or willing to be persuaded that they can change. It is currently out of print but available as an e-book from Amazon. I tell my patients, here is a story from one who has literally walked the walk and has no profit agenda in sharing the story except to help others do the same. Let me know if you are able to evaluate it and find it helpful. All the best in the work that you do. Tom.

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