Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Eureka?! Me vs Traffic: A Lesson in Behavior Change

What do eating behavior and crossing the street have in common?  I'll give you a second to ponder that (cue the Jeopardy music)... 

Are you ready for it?  

They are both things that, in general, we do everyday.  Not only that, BUT when we try to change how we do them something in our little mind goes: Whoa, buddy! Something's wrong here!

Genius, right??

So, this thought came about when I was walking down Cumberland Street in Dunedin today.  I was recapping a conversation that I had with my supervisor on Monday.  Before our meeting I was trying to think of things we could talk about related to the research and other just chit chat topics.  I was preparing for things he might ask me such as, "Sara, how are things going?" to which I'd reply, "Well, I  only have an outline for my literature review (I was supposed to have a first draft completed at the end of May) and I have a first draft of my manuscript on the use of financial incentives with a mailed survey (I started it in February and haven't done anything related to the statistics section yet), but I'm crossing the street much better!"  I assure you, he'd find this last part funny. On one of our walks to our building a few months ago I was not at all used to traffic coming at me from the "wrong" direction and admitted I'd have to follow his lead - even at cross walks.

Well then why does this make me think of eating behavior?

Lately, I've been reading some disappointing articles about the efficacy of weight management programs.  Years after Ancel Keys taught us that restricting our caloric intake (similar to dieting) isn't all it's cracked up to be, we still have research coming out where researchers are trying to tweak dieting programs to achieve safe, successful, long-term weight loss.  It's just not happening.

So, now we've got a few of us out there thinking about weight maintenance.  But, if I'm supposed to develop a weight gain prevention intervention for my PhD thesis, how on earth can I move forward knowing that brilliant researchers haven't come up with anything spectacular already?!

I think we need to stop thinking like researchers with specialty knowledge in diet and exercise and human behavior.  Instead, we need to think like the average Joe and start there.

That's what got me thinking about things that we do so often that it'd be a downright pain in the butt to change them.  Like, for example, putting on socks. Or...crossing the street!  Americans are taught to "Look left. Look right. Look left again."  If you do that in New Zealand, you're going to be flattened into a pancake during an attempt to cross the street.  Things are not hopeless, though.  Luckily, after enough practice, it becomes more natural to look right first for oncoming traffic.  Then, over time, you can cross the street with confidence!

In my experience, I needed to be aware that traffic patterns are different in this new country.  Then, I had to recognize the situations where I'd have to adjust my behavior.  Next, I needed practice changing where I looked for oncoming cars.  Now, I'm almost in a maintenance phase of naturally looking in the "correct" direction for the traffic.  It was like a Crossing the Street Correctly in New Zealand intervention!  I think the same can be said for any new behavior, but particularly for eating-related behavior.

The real challenge now will be deciding what behavior(s) to focus on (e.g. speed of eating, portion size, mindless eating - all of which, and more, are being examined through our survey) and figuring out how to approach that behavior change the way I approached my own street crossing behavior.

I really think I'm on to something here...

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