Why We Don’t Do What’s Good for Us

We know how we can maintain our health. So what keeps us from taking action?

Nancy Huston knows she should lose weight and she's attempted to do it many times, most recently in September, when she tried Weight Watchers — again.

"I sat through the meeting and I never went back," says Huston, 62, of Wilmington, Del. "I'm not really the right person for those kinds of programs." She says that, for her, weight loss has to be "self-inflicted." After walking out of that Weight Watchers group, she estimates that she was able to lose about 12 pounds over two months. But since Thanksgiving and the start of the holiday season, Huston thinks she's put back on about half the weight she had lost.

(MORE: Why Jan. 1 May Be the Worst Day to Start Getting Fit)

Why Many Boomers Don't Get Fit

Americans in middle age or older today have access to more scientifically proven guidance about what it takes to stay healthy than any previous generation. We know what to eat and what to avoid to maintain heart health and ward off diabetes and other diet-related maladies. We know the benefits of exercise not only for our hearts, but also for our brains. And we know that getting fit in middle age can help ensure a healthier old age.

Yet millions of us do not act on what we know. About three-quarters of baby boomers say they believe they need to exercise more and only 4 out of 10 think their diet is very healthy, according to surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Most of my clients are very educated, so they're aware of what they should be doing," says registered dietitian Jessica Crandall, who adds that she counsels a number of nurses.

Why don't we do what we know we should? One major reason may be that we don't believe we're "old" yet, says John Migliaccio, director of research at the MetLife Mature Market Institute. The prevailing attitude is, "I can do it tomorrow; I don't have to worry about doing it today," he says.

Surveys find that no matter how old people may be, they still think "old age" is 10 or 15 years in the future. "We call it the Peter Pan syndrome," says Migliaccio, who is not surprised by such denial. "You don't learn about getting old when you're in school," he says. "There's no Dr. Spock book to explain, 'Here's what's going on.'"
The counterculture mentality of many boomers may also be partly to blame for failing to make the crucial shift from knowing to doing, says Steve French, managing partner of the Natural Marketing Institute. Consciously or not, even as they hear crucial health warnings, they remain cynical about the usefulness of government advice or the effectiveness of organized weight-loss or exercise programs.

Others don't take action for almost the opposite reason a belief that science will solve this problem. "They are rationalizing that they don't need to deal with a particular issue," French says, "because they believe that there's going to be a cure or a magic pill."

Seeking a New Approach

Surveys show that many people simply will not take action to avoid medical problems they are not yet experiencing. The challenge for doctors and policy makers is finding a way to encourage Americans to live healthier lives when chronic conditions are still theoretical. Busy with work, family and caregiving obligations, many adults put their own health on the back burner, gambling that they'll avoid disease without investing the time in preventive action.

An alternative approach to encouraging fitness, based on immediate gratification instead of future benefits, may be more successful. Studies of corporate wellness campaigns have found that the workers who most strongly commit to long-term fitness programs are those who gain the most pleasure and stress relief from exercise. "It has to be portrayed as a compelling behavior that can benefit us today," Michelle Segar of the University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Women and Gender recently told The New York Times. "People who say they exercise for its benefits to quality of life exercise more over the course of a year than those who say they value exercise for its health benefits."

(MORE: Why It's Never Too Late to Start Running)

Unfortunately, for too many people, it takes the shock of a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis to spur action, Crandall says. When chronic illness strikes, "all of a sudden their readiness to change increases, because they want to prevent that from getting worse."

4 Ways to Move From Knowing to Doing

If you're ready to stop gambling with your health and make the changes you know you need to make, here are four expert tips to get you started:

  • Get reliable guidance. Instead of trying to follow a diet you heard mentioned on TV or saw in a magazine, Crandall says, make an appointment with a registered dietitian to work out a personalized eating plan that fits your specific needs.
  • Make a plan. "Most people do not set specific goals," says Gary Latham, a psychologist at the University of Toronto. "They have an attitude: 'I've got to do my best at this.' But the goal is too vague." Instead of simply saying you need to exercise more, take out your calendar and circle the three days next week when you'll work out.
  • Find a role model. "I know I should. I just don't think I can." That's a common excuse for not making healthy changes, Latham says. But you can find inspiration in a peer who has done it or is in the process of doing it. Latham saw a woman recently at a cocktail party and thought, "She is over 60 years old, but she looks like a million bucks. Well, I'm over 60. How come I don't look like a million bucks?"
  • Bond with a "significant other." In psychological terms, Latham says, "a 'significant other' is a person we allow to whisper in our ear. When the significant other says, 'Yes, you can,' it carries great importance." This could be your spouse, of course, but it could also be a friend, co-worker, doctor, trainer or dietitian, like Crandall. "I see some of my clients monthly to just check in with them," she says.
By Rita Rubin
Rita Rubin is a former USA Today medical writer who now writes about health and science for publications including Next Avenue, U.S. News, WebMD and NBCNews.com.@ritarubin

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