April 7th, 2010

Being “Health-Conscious” Just Won’t Cut It

By Kyle Morich

The health and wellness of our society has been under heightened scrutiny these past few months. Outside of the polarizing political issues of regulation, deficit spending, and social programming, the most salient topic has been our unhealthy lifestyles. We’ve seen mountains of data shoved through the newswires illustrating this point. 58 million Americans are overweight, and 40 million are obese. 78% of us are not achieving basic activity level recommendations. Diagnoses of Type II Diabetes in adults 30 to 40 years old have increased 76% since 1990. Oh, and McDonald’s profit is up 23%

Up to 75% of healthcare costs are caused by behavioral factors, such as over-eating, forgetting to take medication, smoking, or a lack of exercise. As we learn more about the brain and the influence of unconscious habits on our everyday lives, it becomes readily apparent the unhealthy lifestyles of the American population are not the results of bad morals, but bad training.

Habits are defined as a rigid contextual cuing of people’s behavior that does not depend on goals and intentions. I don’t consciously want to eat an entire bag of potato chips, but my unconscious brain doesn’t ‘listen.’ We develop habits through repetition and reinforcement. When I sit down in front of a basketball game on Saturday afternoon and eat a potato chip, I am immediately reinforced by the taste of the crunchy, salty morsel on my tongue. Next thing I know, the entire bag is gone and I am left wondering why I let myself so egregiously destroy my diet. I’ll run five miles that night. I’ll vow to never eat potato chips again. Yet during the next basketball game, I’ll reach for a potato chip… and another… and the habit comes roaring back.

Our nation’s bad health habits have been repeated and reinforced for many years, and even the strongest conscious desires are no match for the deep grooves we’ve settled into. I can arm your conscious mind with statistics, organic grocery stores, gym memberships, and the P90X DVD set, but your unconscious mind stays right on track, executing deep behavioral scripts learned from hundreds of repetitions over entire lifetimes.

Our gut reaction to poor diets and lack of exercise is usually one of rancor: people should be personally responsible and stop burdening our society with their bad choices. The truth is far more complex. The purpose of our “Health and Wellness” blog posts is to discuss how our habitual minds impact our health and wellness. By respecting how the force of habit can thwart even the most dedicated intentions, we will offer views into the science behind our health and promote the understanding that successfully adopting a healthy lifestyle requires strategies that work with both the conscious and the unconscious mind.

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