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It's Tough To Make Good Health Choices, But Science Can Help

If you're having trouble seeing the right side of this plate, you're still an OK person. Really.

The year is half over. So I took a moment over the long holiday weekend to triumphantly write, "Mission accomplished!" in ink next to each of my New Year's resolutions.

Just kidding. I didn't actually continue much past January 15 with my vows to run four days a week and ditch all desserts from Monday through Friday. And I am certainly not alone. Simply wanting to change certain behaviors that we know raise the risk for health problems isn't enough to get most of us to follow through, says John Updegraff, a professor of psychology at Kent State University.

Research suggests, however, that some techniques can raise the odds, at least a bit, of making positive behavior changes. Here are some strategies:

Remind yourself that you're OK.

It's easy to sink into a pit of self-loathing when faced with the fact that you don't eat any vegetables unless they're fried. We all want to feel good about ourselves. So when we read health-risk information that makes us feel like we've made bad decisions, we may tune out rather than work to change our behavior, explains Tracy Epton, a research associate at the University of Manchester, in an email.

Simply reminding yourself that you're an OK person may increase your readiness to change. In a review published in 2014, Epton and colleagues analyzed existing research and found self-affirmation techniques combined with persuasive health information can help people decide to change — and then actually do it. (The effects were small, the authors of the analysis wrote, but comparable to similar analyses of other behavior-changing efforts.)

You don't have to look in the mirror and pump yourself up by saying "I'm the greatest of all time." It's as simple as reminding yourself of your values, character strengths and things that you're proud of. "That takes the focus off that health behavior being their defining, negative feature," says Updegraff.

Give yourself an incentive to change.

Financial incentives have been shown to aid a range of behavior changes including smoking cessation and getting kids to eat more fruits and veggies. That's why many workplaces offer incentives – such as cash, insurance premium reductions or deposits to a health savings account — for taking part in physical activity challenges or other wellness efforts.

You can engineer incentives for yourself, using your own money, says Kevin Volpp, a physician and director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. Companies such as StickK and HealthyWage let people essentially bet on their ability to meet their goals. StickK uses "commitment contracts" that specify that you'll pay a certain person or group (such as a charity you disagree with) if you don't meet your goals. With HealthyWage, which is specifically for weight loss, you set a goal and a time frame, and put up some cash. If you meet the goal, the company pays you a financial prize. If you fail, you forfeit your upfront payment. In contrast to workplace reward programs, this method plays to our human tendency to suffer losses more acutely than we value gains.

Be specific about your plans.

Merely stating good intentions isn't likely going to make you change your ways.

Some research suggests that being much more specific — naming the where, when and how — can help turn intentions into action. So instead of, "I want to run more," I could say, "I'm going to get home from daycare drop-off, put my shoes on, and head out the door for at least 30 minutes from Tuesday through Friday, rain or shine." These so-called implementation intentions seem to help increase physical activity as well as help increase healthy food behaviors.

Combine your "wants" and your "shoulds."

One technique to do the things we aren't so crazy about is to pair them with the things we love. It's called "temptation bundling," a concept described by the University of Pennsylvania's Katherine Milkman. Pick something you enjoy doing and allow yourself to do it only when you're exercising or working on some other good habit. There's some early evidence that this technique might help: A 2014 study that Milkman led found that people who were allowed gym-only access to iPods loaded with audiobooks they wanted to hear increased their gym attendance. (Volpp was also one of the authors of this study.)

The effects of the temptation bundle waned over time, the study found, but in my own one-person experiment of more than a year, I've found I can persist with the habit if the "wants" are fresh and consistently appealing. So I allow myself to listen to the endless flow of new episodes of my favorite podcasts, but only when I'm walking or doing active housework.

Engineer your environment.

In the words of the great philosopher Mike Tyson, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Or tempted by a plate of doughnuts. Focusing on your own actions can help, but you can also look around at your environment to see how it's supporting or undermining your health goals.

The Food & Brand Lab at Cornell University has studied a host of things that influence what and how much we eat. Among its findings: Cluttered kitchens encourage overeating. Dining with someone who is overweight may make us eat more. Marketing fruit and veggies to kids with colorful banners and cartoons can boost intake. Dimly lit restaurants are associated with less healthful meal choices.

Take a look at the research and see what you can apply to your own home or workplace.

Katherine Hobson is a freelance health and science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She's on Twitter: @katherinehobson.

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