The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Tips to Support Healthy Behavior Change

Written by
Sue Beckham, PhD
Posted in
Eat better

Thursday, Jul 30, 2015

What’s the best strategy for helping others adopt healthier behaviors? These tips will help you to assist that friend, coworker, or family member struggling with change, determine their readiness to change, and nudge them forward in the process.

1. You can facilitate change but you cannot change someone else. An individual must make their own decision to change. You can show your support, but no amount of nagging or coercion will force someone to change if they are not ready. So don’t take on the responsibility for their decisions and actions. Do what you can and realize that the rest is up to them.

2. Be their friend, not their therapist. Don’t overstep your bounds and jump into the role of therapist. It never works and can negatively impact your relationship with them. Encourage them to seek the support and assistance of professionals such as a wellness coach, personal trainer, counselor, or therapist, as appropriate.

3. Ask them to share their goals with you.  We have all heard the phrase “if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail”. The more specific one’s goals, the more likely they are to be achieved. For example, “I will start exercising” is a vague goal. Rather ask them, “What specifically is your plan?” Help them to think through the important questions like:

  • How many days, which days, and at what time of day will you exercise?
  • What type(s) of exercise will you do (walk, cycle, elliptical, swim, etc.)?
  • How hard (intensity) will you exercise, and how will you measure that intensity (heart rate, steps, miles walked, etc.)?
  • Where will you do the exercise?
  • What is your back-up plan if you miss a day?
It is important that they think through the process and determine what plan will work best for them. Avoid the urge to tell them what to do. It is always better to ask them questions so they can think through the process of formulating their own plan and not just use your plan. They must “own” their plan and their decision to change. You cannot do it for them. If they adopt your plan/suggestions and it does not work, then your support and suggestions will not be perceived as helpful. It is important for them to learn to plan for permanent change.

4. Encourage them to share their goals with others. If others know about our goals, they can help us stay on track. A little peer pressure can help the individual stay focused and adds another layer of accountability when they have to respond to questions about their goals. It also increases the size of their support group.

5. Suggest they create a list of those who can support their change. Ask them to share ways that you can help them make their journey to a healthier lifestyle more successful. It’s important that you do not assume the role of “sole supporter.” Behavior change is hard and anyone who has made lasting change knows that it takes a support group to keep you on track. Encourage them to make a list of what they need help with and who can support them with those needs. People are usually flattered when others ask them for help. Remember, helping assignments can be as small as a wake-up call for a workout or being ready to provide an encouraging call, text message, or email  when things get challenging and the urge to scrap their plan seems overwhelming.

6. Hold them accountable. This part is tricky. You have to decide if you want what’s best for your friend or family member. Holding individuals accountable can be hard but is of tremendous benefit to those trying to make a change. If you don’t feel comfortable asking them if they followed through on their plan, then potentially you could be considered an “enabler.” Enablers do not make good accountability partners. Holding someone accountable means that you celebrate their successes and help them objectively assess their situation. For example, if your friend or family member did not make their goal of 3 days per week of exercise this week, you should gently inquire about the following:

  • What were your challenges/barriers in meeting your goals this week?
  • What happened with your back-up plan?
  • What could you do differently next week if presented with the same circumstances?
Ideally, they should write out a new plan and come up with solutions to the barriers. This will help them think through the process and reassess if using more social support may assist them in attaining their next goal. An enabler, on the other hand, would say “No worries, you will meet your goal next week. We are all so busy.”

7. Encourage them to reward themselves for meeting their goals. This is the fun part. Rewards should be self-determined so that they are more meaningful. Encourage the individual to attach rewards to their specific goals. For example, if they make it to the gym 3 days a week for their workout, an appropriate reward might be a massage or new workout clothes. The reward, however, should fit the accomplishment, meaning bigger goals – bigger accomplishments and bigger rewards. Rewards, however, should not be counterproductive; for example, using food as a reward for losing weight. It is absolutely appropriate to build dessert into a meal plan (moderation in all things) but using food rewards just moves the individual further from their goal, emphasizing unhealthy behaviors and attaching meaning to certain foods that shouldn’t be there.

8. Get involved when appropriate. If you are a regular exerciser and your friend is trying to start an exercise program, offer to meet them for a workout. If you are helping a family member lose weight, suggest all family members get involved in shopping and cooking to learn healthy eating habits. Perhaps your family can take a hike or play at the park together. The more persons engaged in supporting change, the more likely everyone will succeed.

If you want to learn more about these techniques or how to utilize them individually, with your clients/patients, or in your work place check out our Coaching Healthy Behaviors course. You don’t have to be a health and fitness professional to attend, the general public is welcome!