Viva Vitality: Effects of environment on healthy choices

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    seasonal autumn vegetables
    by Sonya Brown

    When it comes to promoting healthy weights, we’ve begun to understand the need to make the healthy choice the easy choice. This means ensuring that the environments where people live, work, learn and play have a positive effect on their health.

    Consider the effect that sedentary behaviour has on daily physical activity – behavior such as watching television, playing video games and being glued to your mobile devices. Consider that highly processed, low-nutrient foods are intensely marketed and widely available at low cost. Consider that urban sprawl and neighborhood safety concerns have deterred people from walking or cycling to work, school or social activities.

    Evidence shows that people cannot be relied upon to eat less and do more in an environment where they are unsupported to do so. And for a good reason: it goes against our nature! We are creatures who think we are better at resisting temptation than we really are, prefer immediate gratification over future pay-off, and think our own health is less at risk than our neighbour’s. Academics call these psychological traits ‘restraint bias,’ ‘hyperbolic discounting’ and ‘optimistic bias’ respectively and they have been identified as barriers to positive health behaviours.

    Imagine walking into a room where there’s a table full of pastries. Maybe this is your staff room, a classroom at school or a public space. Is it difficult to resist this table? The majority will answer yes – unless of course you’re having a moment of cognitive bias, where what you think you would do is different from what you would actually do. This environment would not support a healthy choice and it puts the onus on the individual to make the best choice for good health – a dangerous prospect given the psychological barriers discussed earlier.

    Now imagine the table is filled with fruits and vegetables. Canadians are known to eat less than the recommended amount of this food group, so having it available would support a healthy choice for most people.

    You can see that where the individual falters in making the healthy choice, the environment can make or break it. While it is only one factor in the complex series of factors driving obesity, the environment is a modifiable one with the potential for broad impact. Consider how you can make changes to the environments in which you spend time to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

     Sonya Brown is a Health Promotion Co-ordinator with Alberta Health Services and can be reached by e-mail:  [email protected]

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