Everyone knows how difficult it can be to stick with a behavior change over the long haul, whether it’s eating a healthier diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking or any of the countless ways people work to improve their health and wellness.
It can feel easy in the early days, when your motivation is at its peak, but it’s essential that you have strategies to keep yourself on track when “life happens” and obstacles appear.
It’s Not About Willpower
People often think that behavior change is simply a matter of willpower and therefore blame themselves when they overindulge in sweets or miss a few workouts. The truth is, relying on willpower is a frequent recipe for failure, as it’s a limited resource and is easily overwhelmed by stress, fatigue or even enjoyment of things we know aren’t necessarily “good for us.” So-called failures are actually short-term lapses and an unavoidable part of the behavior-change process. Blaming yourself for these instances can lead to mental health concerns if you’re constantly criticizing yourself for a lack of discipline or willpower.
Social support from friends, family, coworkers and other important players in your life can be a strong predictor of how successful you will be in adhering to a behavior change over the long term. Friends and loved ones can influence your perceptions about health and health behaviors, as well as increase your self-efficacy and motivation.
A supportive social network can also help you address problems and provide emotional support when feelings of stress or other negative factors threaten to interfere with your quest to make behavioral changes. Another benefit of social support is that it’s a two-way street, meaning that you're providing that support in addition to receiving it.
Social Support Strategies
You can use the following strategies to build a mutually beneficial social support network. The examples given here are for developing an exercise routine, but these strategies can be used for any type of healthy behavior change.
Add a social element to the exercise program, such as arriving a little early to chat with friends before beginning a workout.
Ask friends and family members to be encouraging and positive about your exercise program.
Ask for reminders from friends and family members about your physical-activity goals or appointments.
Find an enjoyable activity that is based on being physically active with a group or club, such as dancing, hiking or playing pickleball.
Find an enjoyable and reliable exercise partner.
Set up fun “contests” with a friend that base rewards on meeting process goals, which are goals that are met by simply doing something rather than by meeting a measurable objective (e.g., a weight-loss goal). Meeting at the high school track for a scheduled walk 10 times without an absence is an example of a process goal.
Support Starts at Home
Social support inside the home, whether that’s from a spouse, children, parents or roommates, can be particularly impactful. Most of your decisions about what to eat and how to use your free time are made while at home.
The flipside of the importance of social support in successful behavior change is the acknowledgment that you may not always have the support you need or desire at home. In some cases, that lack of social support can even manifest as an unintended form of sabotage. For example, a spouse may bring home your favorite sweets in an effort to cheer you up when you’re struggling, or roommates may hassle you for skipping happy hour to go to the gym out of a genuine desire to socialize with you. In such cases, it’s important to remember that these people love you and are probably unaware that you need something different from them as you change your lifestyle.
Consider the following strategies to bring the people you live with on board as you make a behavior change:
Be a role model: Those after-dinner walks may be solo outings in the beginning, but your family members will likely choose to join you eventually. Being a role model involves being consistent in your behaviors while inviting others to join you (rather than telling them to). “I’m leaving to take a quick walk. Anyone want to join me?” is a lot more welcoming than, “Our after-dinner walk is in 5 minutes, so everyone get ready and put your shoes on.”
Communicate: Explain how and why you want to change your lifestyle, being sure to stress its importance and explicitly ask for their support. It’s important that reluctant family members or friends understand that there is a difference between supporting the behavior change and joining you on that journey. You are not asking your spouse to change their own behaviors, for example, but instead to support you as you modify yours.
Include them in the process: Discuss activities or foods you both enjoy and then incorporate them into your behavior-change plan, even if they are not your top choices. Having that social support will likely be more important in the long run than you choosing every workout or meal.
Make small, incremental changes: Just because you’re ready to drink less soda, throw away all the cookies in the cupboard or take a short walk every day after dinner doesn’t mean others are on the same page. So, start making these changes over time and let those around you see that you are committed for the long haul. Patience is key here.
Not everyone will find the support they need in every setting, whether that’s at home, at the office or in their social lives. Everyone’s behavior-change journey is unique, but that does not mean that the destination of improved happiness, health and overall well-being isn’t within reach. Use the strategies presented here to build the social support network you need to drive your personal success.