As we close in on the end of another year, many of us find ourselves in the process of taking stock of both the blessings in our lives as well as those behaviors we'd really like to change. I'm speaking of the thinking process that leads us to the most challenging of annual proclamations, the New Year's resolution. Regardless of whether we formalize the process of resolving to change come the first of January, it's only natural for our minds to go to that place at this time of year. From ancient Babylonians and Romans to medieval knights, making pledges to improve behavior and amend mistakes on at least an annual basis has become common practice.
As we get older and look back, it's easy for us to see a path littered with resolve that didn't quite play out. We can take at least some comfort in knowing that the inability to follow through on New Year's resolutions is a fairly typical American trait. According to one 2014 poll by the University of Scranton psychology department, a good majority of people, 71 percent of participants to be exact, were able to hold to their annual promises for the first two weeks. Six months later, less than 50 percent of those surveyed had been able to hold on to their resolutions.
Why do we break these promises we feel so compelled to make?
Specifically, I'm thinking of resolutions that are a reminder and recognition of bad and unhealthy behavior that is hurting us. Year after year, the leading causes of death continue to have a strong association with bad habits. It is why so many of the leading causes of death in the U.S. are considered preventable. According to a report from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, many of the main culprits in ruining our health consistently remain the same — smoking, poor diet and a lack of exercise.
We may worry about pollution and harmful chemicals in the air and water (a bell that I rang in my most recent column), but studies of the major causes of death continue to confirm what we have the most trouble confronting — when it comes to our health, to a large extent, we continue to be our own worst enemy.
According to the World Health Organization, chronic diseases are the major cause of death and disability worldwide. The total number of people dying from chronic diseases is double that of all infectious diseases. A small set of common risk factors is responsible for most of them. These factors can be modified and are the same for both men and women. Care to guess what they are? Unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use. Without action to address the causes, deaths from chronic disease are estimated to increase by 17 percent over the next 10 years.
Experts have long recognized that social and physical environments play large roles in fueling poor habits. For example, when a behavior is socially accepted or considered desirable, people tend to reconcile the fact that it's bad for them with the idea that "everybody's doing it."
It's also been demonstrated that people who are better at processing numbers look at the same information quite differently than people not particularly number-minded. Some people are inclined to rely more on fear than actual hard evidence in prompting their actions. For many, their emotions act as guiding lights in the choices they make. In fact, some neuroscience experts will tell you that most people tend to make even some of the most important decisions based on emotion, and then rationalize them with logic.
Complicating things even further is the fact that "couch potatoes" might be glued to the TV by external factors more than a lack of desire to be healthy.
"We tell people they need to become physically active, but in certain neighborhoods if you get out and go for a walk you could be putting yourself in harm's way from either traffic that's not well controlled or other kinds of things like violence in your neighborhood," says Andrea Gielen of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
For its study, the University of Washington team put together a list of 14 dietary bad habits that can kill people, and found they factored into 21 percent of all deaths globally. They include eating too much red meat and sugary drinks and not eating enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Unfortunately, there exists no vaccine to treat bad behavior as people continue to undertake lifestyle risks. It seems that facts have little bearing on how far too many people feel about their habits and the idea of making a commitment to change them.
So we are left to wonder what strategies might help us to be more successful.
It seems clear that coming up with successful pro-health campaigns requires more research and implementing multiple strategies that speak to different people; And also resolving to double down on the efforts to reach people and change bad behavior before it's too late.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Anthony Quintano