Being healthy in an unhealthy world

3 October 2012

The path to good health is blocked by behavioural change, according to human performance specialist Dr Adam Fraser.

Kicking off this year’s NSWNMA annual conference with some humour and common sense advice was researcher and educator, Dr Adam Fraser, who shared his insights into the physiological and psychological aspects of changing human behaviour for better health. Here are some highlights of his speech:

A compelling reason for change

Through his current research at Deakin University, Dr Fraser found that addressing counterproductive behaviours during what he calls the “third space” has shown to be an effective tool in changing human behaviour.

“The first space is what you’re doing now, the second space is what you’re about to do and the third space is that transitional gap.

“What we’ve discovered is that behaviour, or derail of behaviour, occurs in the gaps. This is where we open the fridge and then we eat the entire chocolate cake.”

Dr Fraser told the audience that the first tool needed to drive change in behaviour was a compelling emotional reason to make those changes, while the second “is to regulate the conversation, the noise inside our head.

“What we found is that what people say to themselves and what they do in this gap has a profound impact on their behaviour and whether they’ll stick to behaviours.”

Regulate your self-talk

Emotions are what motivate our actions, Dr Fraser advised. “What we’ve got to understand is that emotion drives behaviour,” he said. “The most important thing that we need to understand, when we’re trying to change behaviour, is that we have to look at using emotion in a positive way.”

Scare tactics, negative self-talk and positive self-talk that is unrealistic, are just some of the approaches that don’t work.

“What we have to be very careful of is how we explain the world to ourselves,” Dr Fraser told the audience. “How do we explain our challenges? How do we explain our victories? How do we explain our setbacks.

“When you slip up or have a treat, don’t go global and go, ‘oh God it’s hopeless’. Regulate it, be kind.”

Be clear

Dr Fraser believes that the biggest breakthrough on behaviour change in the past 20 years has been the articulation of clear behaviours.

“When most people want to get healthy, they talk in intangible nouns,” Dr Fraser said. “Got to eat better, got to exercise more, got to get healthier. What’s that?

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t do it.”

He advised that the next step to making behavioural change was to avoid being ambiguous, by knowing exactly what needed to be done and setting clear goals, with specific quantities and set time frames.

“Clear behaviours are absolutely crucial,” Dr Fraser said. “Once we’ve articulated the behaviour, we regulate the emotion and we control the thoughts.”

Ensure your environment supports your goals

Consider how the environment you’re in supports the overall completion of your goals, Dr Fraser said.

“It’s not usually that we have bad intentions or we lack conviction, the problem is that the environment makes it hard to execute,” he explained.

In his humorous style, Dr Fraser told the audience an anecdote from Amsterdam, where they wanted to improve men’s use of urinals.

“The issue was – let’s call it, spillage. What they found is that there was a lot of mess on the floor, and they put up signs and talked to them about hygiene and all this sort of thing, and the only thing that worked was something called the ‘urinal fly’.

“They gave them something to aim at.”

The urinal fly was a small sticker placed inside toilet bowls and urinals at Amsterdam International Airport by behavioural researchers from the University of Chicago, who found it reduced “spillage” by 80%.

To find out more about Dr Fraser’s strategies, you can read his book The Third Space: Using life’s little transitions to find balance and happiness.