Big Fat Truth about Resolutions

by Anne Bennett on January 3, 2012

If you’re a hopeful dieter/couch potato/smoker who has made a New Year’s resolution to get fit in 2012, the odds, they say, are stacked against you. According to Tara Parker-Pope, the Wellness columnist for the New York Times, a third of us will abandon our resolutions before the end of January, and four out of five of us will dump them sometime later in the year.

Does this mean it’s useless to even try to adopt healthier habits? Hold onto your gym shorts and your low-fat granola bars, there is hope, and it comes from an unlikely source: heroin-addicted U.S. servicemen serving in Vietnam in the late 1960’s and early ’70’s.

A recent npr.org story told the story of how a disturbing 15 percent of all servicemen in Vietnam became actively addicted to heroin during their service overseas.

A system was put in place where addicted soldiers were not allowed to return home until they dried out.  Followup studies found that these soldiers had a 95 percent chance of staying clean after they returned to the U.S. This flew in the face of other studies that showed that soldiers who were treated for their addiction after they returned to the the U.S. had a far worse time staying clean: 90 percent of them relapsed.

Why the huge difference? The answer turned out to be relatively simple: however much we may want to change, if we repeat a behavior over and over in the same setting we actually cause our physical environments to shape our behavior.  Intentions are not enough to carry us through.

Psychologist David Neal puts it this way: “People, when they perform a behavior a lot–especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting–outsource the control of the behavior to the environment.”

Wow: another outsourcing of American energy. What next?

So, the soldiers who were treated for their addiction in faraway Vietnam came home to a completely different environment that supported their sobriety, whereas the soldiers who were treated in the U.S. were already in a comfortable, well-established environment that made it much more difficult to quit.

Neal says that over time our environments unconsciously direct our behavior, so the key to establishing better habits lies in somehow changing our environments to better support a healthy lifestyle.

I’m afraid this means moving the candy dish away from the TV table and putting your walking shoes right next to the front door instead of hidden in the closet. It’s not glamorous, it’s not easy, but if you thought it would be then you must be smoking something other than tobacco.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Casey January 4, 2012 at 4:49 am

Brilliant. I love the last line 🙂 You’re right though- sometimes
we have to change our “playground/playmates” in order to
really change our lives. It’s tough, but so very worth it!!!

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