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How do I help a loved one change their behavior and be healthy?

Let me tell you a story about Jack.

When I was a Probation Officer, there were times that we had to attend Court proceedings of person we were supervising. If person was referred back to the Court, it was usually because they had picked up a new charge or were non-compliant with their probation terms and conditions. There, they would answer to the judge for the new offense or non-compliance and a new sentence would be determined. There's a lot of factors that go into these decisions, so it could be a range of things. The person could be reinstated back into probation, given an additional sanction and probation, or, sometimes, sentenced to jail. The Court would often ask the input of the Probation Officer to determine the likelihood of this person being successful if they were reinstated to probation.

I found myself at a Court proceeding for a young guy I had been supervising. I won't use his real name, but let's call him Jack. Jack was a likeable guy. In his mid-twenties and held down a really stable job. He had a lot of stability factors that made you think he would be successful on probation. He just had an unfortunate tendency to have too many drinks and make some costly, illegal mistakes.

As the proceedings are going on, Jack is having all his violations of probation listed out and it comes time to give Jack a new sentence. Now, keep in mind that the Court tries to do everything in their power to not send people to jail. Ideally, that's reserved for really violent, dangerous people. Additionally, most people prefer to have a probation sentence as opposed to spending their time in jail. So, they offer him a pretty good deal, given the circumstances. Reinstate the probation with an added 30 hours of community service.

I won't go into the details, but Jack was kind of getting off easy here. He had a couple new charges and could have faced some jail time for the combination of things. Fully expecting Jack to accept the offer, I am already creating my speech in my head about how we're going to start fresh, make a plan, and be successful this time. The Jack speaks up:

"Judge, uh, can I say something"

"You sure can." replies the judge.

"I think...I think I'm good."

"What do you mean, you're good?"

"I mean I don't want to participate in probation."

Surprised, the judge asks, "Do you know that means I would have to give you a jail sentence?"

"Yeah, I know."

"And why is this your preference?"

"Well, honestly, I'm probably not going to change my ways. So I don't want to waste anyone's time."

If I remember correctly, the Court proceedings were postponed to a later date so the attorney's could talk to each other and talk to Jack. I actually don't even remember if he ended up accepting the probation sentence or not. The reason I bring up Jack's story is to highlight an example of someone not being ready to change. We see this in the health and fitness industry pretty regularly, but it doesn't get talked about much.

Personal training books, gym advertising, diet books...most of them are targeting people who are ready to make a life change. Additionally, we often assume that everyone wants to make healthier choices, wants to better their lives, and wants to advance. However, in my time working in the criminal justice field, I found that this just isn't true. During my college degree and professionally experience I've been introduced to several behavior change theories and models. I wanted to highlight one of my favorites to look at.

The Transtheoretical Model (TTM) of behavior change first looks to identify a person and where their mindset is right now. They break it into 5 categories.

  1. Pre-Contemplation: This is Jack. In this stage, a person has no intention of taking any action towards a change in behavior. They most likely don't recognize the negative consequences of their actions, or at least do a really good job of ignoring them.

  2. Contemplation: In this stage, a person is contemplating changing their behavior, but likely doesn't know how to do that. They're likely to start taking action within the next 6 months.

  3. Preparation: This person has developed a plan of attack and is likely to execute that attack in the next 30 days. Maybe they plan to go to the gym on Monday or grocery shop for healthy foods this weekend. They're also probably doing some research on what kind of workouts to do, how much does a trainer costs, etc.

  4. Action: The person is actively executing their plan of attack. Their going to the gym, prioritizing sleep, eating whole foods, and drinking water.

  5. Maintenance: In this stage, we've officially been executing that plan for greater than 6 months and are trying to avoid a relapse.

Understanding this stages is of the upmost importance. When we start to look at people's behavior through the lens of this model, we can now make a plan to help change their behavior for the better. I think you could spend a lot of time unpacking each individual stage, and I want to expand on those in future posts. For example, one key takeaway is when we look at the maintenance stage. It doesn't even start until you've been executing your plan for six months! I get very exhausted and frustrated when I see a, "21-day diet" or a "30 day shred workout plan". Man, shut up! Those are short term "fixes" that do absolutely nothing to change your behavior long term. The don't help you reach your goals and will leave you disheartened and no different.

However, I want to look at our first stage, pre-contemplation. And it might be the toughest stage to move. How do you move a person from zero to one? How do you convince a guy like Jack to start changing? Remember, this theory of behavior change was not designed to specifically designed to be applied to the healthy and fitness population, although researches such as Andrea Dunn have done so. However, the strategies that are used in this model can be universally applied.

Strategies for changing someone's stage can be either cognitive or behavioral. The TTM identifies five different strategies for this stage, and they're all cognitive strategies:

  • Increasing knowledge

  • Being aware of the risks

  • Caring about consequences for others

  • Comprehending benefits

  • Identifying emotions related to behaviors

If you're reading this and you are a physically healthy person, you've likely wanted to bring others on the journey with you. You see the benefits. The energy boost, the confidence, the you want others to experience it, too. Particularly your loved ones. You have most likely met a person like Jack. They are in the pre-contemplation stage and just...don't want to change. We're not wrong to try and convince them to change. You love them, after all, and want to see them healthy. So how does identifying their stage help? Where we often fail (and I'm as guilty as anyone) is we assume that the same behavioral strategies that helped us become more healthy, will be their starting point. Behavioral strategies such as substituting alternatives (foods), enlisting social support, rewarding yourself, being committed, and reminding yourself are all strategies that help much farther down the road of behavior change. We're trying to tell them how to shift to the next gear when they haven't even turned the car on. This can be frustrating for you and the loved one, possibly delaying any behavior change for a longer time. Again, we just want to get them from zero to one.

So, what can we do to help them during the pre-contemplation stage? If I had to wrap it up in a nice package, I would say help them learn. Model the benefits and educate on the consequences. If we look back at the cognitive strategies for behavior change in the pre-contemplation stage, we see it's just about learning. Use those things to help them learn why they should change their behavior and become healthier. Increase their knowledge and help them comprehend the benefits. Let them know the risks of not being healthy. Think of the emotions they may have surrounding behavior change. And be patient. Remember, If they are in the pre-contemplation stage, they do not plan on making any changes in the next six months. So, if you really want to help them learn, you're going to have to find ways to do that for a long period of time. Eventually, though, things start to click and they can change. It's like a moving a big rock down a big hill. It's a lot of leg work up front, but gets a little easier the more momentum you build.

Ultimately, every person has to choose to when they are ready change. And that can be a tough pill to swallow. But following this model can help you encourage someone in a non-invasive way. It could change their life.

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