Why is it so difficult to change health-related behavior?

Dr. Manuel Schlipf
About the Author

Manuel Schlipf is a medical doctor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany. In 2020 he started working as a new investigator of the VANTASTIC-Study (Part of Eat2beNice), which evaluates the effects of broad-spectrum supplementation on reducing impulsive, compulsive, and aggressive behavior in adolescents.

When you read the blogs on this website, you will know how healthy lifestyle and nutrition can contribute to mental health. With this information it should be easy for everyone to eat healthy, stop smoking and increase their physical activity, shouldn’t it? In reality, it is very difficult to adopt a healthy lifestyle, even when you know all the facts. Why it is so difficult to change our habits?

Unlike what many people think, common sense or the right information about good health related behavior is not always enough for changing bad habits. It is more complex than that.

Our behavior is rather a result of the interplay between habits, automatic responses to things happening in our environment and conscious choices.

For example, placing fresh fruit and vegetables at the front of a food display makes healthier food choices more likely, because you will choose these foods more automatically. If you need to make a conscious decision to look for fruit and vegetables, this costs much more cognitive effort.

This strategy to change behavior through cues in our environment is called “nudging”.

Unfortunately, this can also work the other way around: when unhealthy foods are promoted through commercials, we are more likely to buy these products.

So why is it so difficult to make conscious decisions about what’s good for us, and overrule these automatic and unconscious behaviors? That is because most of our behavior is ingrained in our lives and relies on routines and habits. If we would constantly evaluate all the available information and knowledge that we have and make conscious decisions about everything we do, that would be exhausting! So can’t we make willful choices and change our routines? Of course we can. There are many behavior-change techniques that can help to change our habits. Here are some that might help you to adapt a healthy lifestyle:

  • Set goals: the goals should be challenging but achievable, and set publicly or face to face to another person.
  • Get social support: find another person or group with the same goal und and give and get social support.
  • Self-monitoring: Being aware of change can show you the progress and motivate to carry on.
  • Find help: for example for smoking cessation there might be helpful programs of your health care provider or public health authority.

Further Reading

  1. Why is changing health-related behaviour so difficult? – by Kelly & Barker (2016)
  2. Are physical activity interventions for healthy inactive adults effective in promoting behavior change and maintenance, and which behavior change techniques are effective? A systematic review and meta-analysis – by Howlett et al. (2019)
  3. Unique effects of setting goals on behavior change: Systematic review and meta-analysis – by Epton, Currie & Armitage (2017)