APA: Americans Report Willpower and Stress as Key Obstacles to Meeting Health-Related Resolutions

As the Obama administration tackles the national obesity epidemic, a new American Psychological Association poll shows that individuals need ongoing support to make lifestyle and behavior changes.

WASHINGTON — An administration task force chaired by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Education and Health and Human Services is asking the public for recommendations to solve the American obesity problem, and a new poll by the American Psychological Association (APA) may have some answers.

Long-term behavior change is necessary to overcome the barriers to healthy living. According to the APA poll conducted online by Harris Interactive in early March, fewer than one in five adults (16 percent) reported being very successful at making health-related improvements such as losing weight (20 percent), starting a regular exercise program (15 percent), eating a healthier diet (10 percent), and reducing stress (7 percent)1 so far this year, although about nine in 10 adults (88 percent) who resolved to make a health-related change say they have been at least somewhat successful at achieving it since January. Despite these efforts, about three-quarters (78 percent) of those who made a health-related resolution say significant obstacles block them from making progress, such as willpower (33 percent), making changes alone (24 percent), and experiencing too much stress (20 percent).

“Lasting lifestyle and behavior changes don’t happen overnight. Willpower is a learned skill, not an inherent trait. We all have the capacity to develop skills to make changes last,” said Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, executive director for professional practice at APA. “It is important to break down seemingly unattainable goals into manageable portions.”

Lynne Vaughan, chief innovation officer of YMCA of the USA – which is partnering with APA to provide families with resources for healthy living – agreed. “YMCAs work with individuals every day to support them in achieving their healthy living goals. We’ve found that those who set short-term goals along the way toward a longer term behavior change are more successful at maintaining those changes,” she said.

Psychologists with APA report that, with the right support, individuals can learn how to make lasting lifestyle and behavior changes, regardless of the importance they place on willpower or the influence of stress. “Is it will or is it skill?” asks health psychologist and past president of APA’s Division of Health Psychology Dr. Karina Davidson. “The reality is that, with the right guidance, people can build and strengthen the skills they need to make even the toughest lifestyle changes,” she said.

APA recommends talking about lifestyle and behavior goals with friends, family, or a professional, such as a psychologist, who can help navigate feelings and gain skills to successfully change behavior. With help, individuals can develop willpower and stay on track with their health-centered goals.

For additional information on lasting lifestyle and behavior changes, visit the Psychology Help Center, read the campaign blog Your Mind Your Body, and follow @apahelpcenter on Twitter.

1 The full list of health related-resolutions also includes stopping smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, and getting more sleep on a regular basis.

Methodology
This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Psychological Association between March 2 and March 4, 2010, among 2,073 U.S. adults age 18+, of whom 1,104 made a New Year’s resolution. No estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated; a full methodology is available.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world’s largest association of psychologists. APA’s membership includes more than 152,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial, and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession, and as a means of promoting health, education, and human welfare.

Harris Interactive is one of the world’s leading custom market research firms, leveraging research, technology, and business acumen to transform relevant insight into actionable foresight. Known widely for the Harris Poll and for pioneering innovative research methodologies, Harris offers expertise in a wide range of industries including healthcare, technology, public affairs, energy, telecommunications, financial services, insurance, media, retail, restaurant, and consumer package goods. Serving clients in over 215 countries and territories through our North American, European, and Asian offices and a network of independent market research firms, Harris specializes in delivering research solutions that help us – and our clients – stay ahead of what’s next. For more information, please visit the website.