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NHS HIGHLAND: How easy is it for us to really change our behaviour?

By Dr Tim Allison

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Walking can be the healthy choice, even if the weather isn't that great.
Walking can be the healthy choice, even if the weather isn't that great.

Our health depends on many things. Some of them are difficult to change, such as the genes that we have inherited from our parents.

Other things are easier to change, such as our behaviour. But how easy really is it to change our behaviour?

We may like to think that we are in total control of what we do but we are likely to be more influenced by what is around us than we realise.

We are subject to the powerful influence of advertising as well as what our friends and family think. It is also much easier to look after our health if
we have more money and lack of money has an enormous effect on people’s health.

Whether things are available and affordable is a huge factor. Some influences are bigger and some smaller.

One small example of how what is around us affects our behaviour struck me last weekend when I was away visiting relatives.

I wanted to get some breakfast somewhere over a side road from where I was staying. But there was no path to get straight there. It was designed so that the quickest way was to get in a car and drive there.

I did walk and did climb over a couple of barriers, but I was disappointed to see how hard it was to make the healthier choice.

You may say that this is a bit of a trivial example, but it does show that making a healthier decision can be the harder thing to do. I would much rather see that the healthy choice to make is also the easy choice to make.

Some healthy behaviours during Covid were easier to make because the regulations directed us to do those things and there was also some peer pressure to do what was best for our health and the health of others.

So, what can we do about this and how can we counter the unhealthy influences?

Making the healthy choice the easy choice can be difficult but to start with it is helpful to acknowledge that the influences around us do matter and it is not a case of people just lacking the willpower to choose what will improve their health.

Campaigning may be necessary to make it easier to travel by foot or cycle and to promote the availability of cheap nutritious food. We can encourage friends and family and we can also set an example.

When Covid was at its height, the example set by people helped others. When we see others doing something it makes us keener to follow their example.

If we walk rather than drive for a short journey, then it will encourage others to do so.

If more and more people do the same, it may even result in new footpaths being built. That would be a modest achievement, but every big journey starts with a small step.

Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland’s director of public health and policy.

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