By David C. Leopold, M.D.
As a physician, I have long been fascinated by what people do NOT do when it comes to taking care of their health. Why do we not make the choices that we know are best for us? As I have discussed before, healthy living choices in many ways are simple and straightforward, and definitively lead to healthier and higher quality lives. So why do people not do the things that they know they should? Some recent studies and papers have examined this and found some very interesting things.
There are 8 prominent reasons why people do not do the things that they know are better for them, and I will examine a few of them here and some in later blogs.
1) WE WANT IT NOW! As everyone is aware, we are creatures of immediate gratification. To sort of quote the late great Tom Petty (R.I.P Tom!), “Damn the Torpedoes! (full steam ahead)”. (Well, actually that was Tom quoting U.S. Admiral Farragut , but you get the point). We want what we want now; we don’t care about what happens in the future. If it is food or that new giant TV and the cost is to our bodies or our bank accounts, we want it now. And none of this makes for very good long term results.
2) GOOD STUFF CAN WAIT, BUT WE FEAR THE BAD. We are concerned with the bad stuff that can happen but not as much when it comes to positive outcomes. This may be because we are wired to be concerned with risk - particularly immediate risk, and avoidance of danger, but we are not really set up to appreciate the benefits of healthy behavior, and certainly not benefits that are in the future. So not making a healthy choice for activity is actually compounded by the immediate gratification of the poor choice (particularly relevant to food choices). The healthy outcome is just too far down the road. We care a lot if we just had a heart attack, we don’t want another one, but until that big one hits, well, one more cheeseburger sounds pretty good….
3) WE THINK NOTHING IS REALLY GOING TO HAPPEN TO US. This one is particularly interesting to me; we have a false sense of optimism. We think: that won’t happen to ME. Smokers don’t think they will be the ones to get cancer, people who continually make poor dietary choices don’t think they will be the one to get diabetes or have that heart attack; it will always be someone else. I can tell you right now, I have spent much of my career taking care of people who did not think they were going to be in a doctor’s office suffering from what they are suffering from. And the unfortunate part of this is that so much of our chronic disease is preventable. People have a false sense of their ability to avoid disease. Most don’t realize that they are on their way to an official diagnosis until it is too late, and then it is often very difficult to reverse what has occurred. An ounce of prevention is really better than a pound of cure, but few see it that way.
4) WE ARE ALMOST ALL IN SOME STAGE OF BURNOUT. Being in a constant state of depletion and fatigue often leads to making bad choices. These may be comforting in the moment, but are usually detrimental to our long term prospects. Who does not want to reach for the Ben & Jerry’s or that delicious chocolate scone when we are tired or feeling down? I have yet to meet the person who makes consistently great choices when they are feeling lousy, frustrated, down or hopeless.
So what can we do about all of this? Well, first realize that although the path to good health is clear and should be easy, in the modern world it is not. Temptation is everywhere and making poor choices is supported by industry and advertising all around you. Easily available poor and nonproductive options (e.g. sit around, eat poorly, take the elevator, pretend you are not a ball of stress, etc.) are the constant devils on your shoulder, encouraging any amount of “bad” behavior you can image.
I was really struck once again by this recently watching the NCAA Basketball Tournament. This event is a paragon of athleticism, which is ironically completely dominated by ad after ad of things to eat that will absolutely wreak havoc on your physiology. How do we stay healthy when we are constantly inundated by things and ideas that want to pull us towards the unhealthy?
So, how to improve when the odds are so stacked against us? Good news, it is not hopeless, although it can be challenging. It can also be liberating and empowering and lead to a better life in our bodies and minds, and the same for those around us. (Here’s an added bonus; study after study shows positive health is contagious. People are healthier when they associate with healthier people. Imagine the implications to your family and friends if you take up the mantle of becoming a shining example of health for yourself and those close to you.)
Next time, we will talk about the ways to accomplish these goals by focusing on immediate benefits, avoiding too many choices, making commitments to ourselves, being prepared, keeping it simple and believing in ourselves that we can make these positive changes. We will see how we can use the same principles that advertisers use to get us to do detrimental things, to do the good stuff.
You will soon find that you can actually be feeling better by tomorrow, and soon you can be well down your path to wellness!
In health and happiness,
David C. Leopold, M.D.