Alter the Environment, Alter the Behavior


Alter the Environment, Alter the Behavior

Jenn Pilotti


A behavior is an output in the form of action, and is a response to context. An action implies movement of some sort, so another way of thinking about behavior is that it is a movement that satisfies a desired outcome based on environmental cues. What that desired outcome is depends on a number of things, including past behavior, current physical and emotional state, and current environment.

It’s estimated that approximately 45% of people’s behavior is habitual. Habits are automatic and occur in response to an environmental cue from a context in which the behavior has been performed and rewarded before. More simple, habits form when environments are predictable, the behavior has occurred several times before, and there is an element of reward associated with the behavior.

Predictable rewards and predictable environments make it easier to adopt healthy eating habits, exercise habits, and environmental habits. Predictable rewards and predictable environments can also make it easy to adopt a daily drinking habit, fast food habit, or lack of walking habit. Context drives behavioral tendencies.

Perhaps this is why research suggests that while most people are aware of the benefits of physical activity, regular exercise is a habit many struggle to adopt. People count a lack of motivation, time, and access to a gym facility as reasons exercise isn’t a regular part of their lives. It has been proposed that the ability to adopt a regular exercise regiment is dependent on four factors:

  • Self efficacy, or an individual’s belief that they are able to perform regular exercise,

  • Self regulation, or the ability to control and manage behavior through planning, goal setting, and self monitoring

  • Outcome expectation, or the beliefs held about what will happen if the behavior is performed

  • Social support, which is the support received from others regarding the behavior

When we look specifically at exercise as the example, exercise becomes a behavior that requires certain criteria to be met in order for it to habitually take place. The individual needs to believe they can perform regular exercise, which indicates the individual believes they are doing the right type of exercise. The individual must also be able to control and manage exercise, which means they need to carve out the time and place where the exercise will be performed. The individual must believe that exercise will benefit them positively in some way, and is partially predicated on how the people around them view exercise.

Exercise, then, is a behavior that is viewed as occurring in a specific way, in a specific context. In order for it to become habitual, the reward needs to be greater than the work it takes to actually exercise.

Reframing exercise during a pandemic and what we can learn from heroin use during the Vietnam war:

During the Vietnam war, heroin was easily accessible for US soldiers. In fact, it was so accessible that at one point, approximately 20 percent of soldiers self identified as heroin addicts.

Addicted soldiers stayed in Vietnam until they had detoxed. When they were allowed back in the US, they were tracked by researchers and monitored for continued heroin use. Curiously, the amount of soldiers who relapsed and began using heroin again over the course of their first year back in the US was approximately five percent. Put another way, 95 percent of the soldiers who were addicted to heroin in Vietnam did not continue their heroin use in the United States. Why? The answer, it seems, lies in environments.

Since habits are behaviors that are cued by environments and are performed independent of a person’s goals, it should make sense that drastically changing a soldier’s environment would alter his behavior. Earlier, I noted about 45 percent of what we do every day is done in the same environment. And is repeated.

Think about this. Almost half of your daily activities are predictable based on your environment. So if you want to make a lifestyle change and you plan on staying in the same environment, you not only need the will power to perform the new behavior, you will need to ignore all of the ingrained behavior patterns that have been repeated daily for possibly years, patterns that at one point served a purpose. Whether that purpose was to create a surge of dopamine or to affect your autonomic nervous system in some way, the behavior was beneficial enough that it became an unconscious habit.

So what do you do to alter a behavior? Let’s return to the idea of exercise for a moment. First, clearly understanding why you want to change your current behavior of not exercising is critical for determining whether the new behavior can ultimately become a habit. If the reason behind exercising more is to have the energy to play with your child as she grows up that is likely to lead to greater adherence over time than wanting to lose ten pounds to impress your friends at your high school reunion. When you are intrinsically motivated, your behavior is consistent with what you value, making it easier to adhere to the new behavior. When you are motivated to change for external reasons, once the initial goal is met it’s more challenging to stay motivated and not return to the familiar or habitual.

Once the true reasons for behavior change are established, in order for success to be maintained moving forward, altering the environment in some way can be an effective strategy. For people beginning an exercise program, joining a gym that is strategically placed is one way to add a new environment dedicated to a specific behavior (in this case, exercise).

But what happens if gyms are shut down and the environment in which the behavior is “supposed” to take place is no longer an option? How can a new habit be adopted in a familiar environment, one where behavioral patterns and movement patterns are already strongly established?

The easiest solution to this is to change the environment in some way and, in this case, perhaps reframe the idea of traditional exercise. Instead of focusing on exercise as a thing that requires a set amount of time, what happens if the emphasis becomes moving in a more varied way throughout the day? For instance, if you always place the dishes on the upper right hand corner of the second shelf in the kitchen, what happens if you place them in the lower left hand corner of the shelf under the counter? Suddenly, the simple act of putting the dishes away requires a slightly different movement pattern than you are used to.

Another strategy which I’ve seen work over and over again is to place an exercise object somewhere it doesn’t belong. I have a client who has her dumbbells out on her dresser for her remote sessions with me. She regularly picks them up and does things with them between sessions, simply because of where they are located. At first, it was novel and she didn’t actually pick them up that often, but as time went on and she became accustomed to the idea that she could lift weights at home, she found herself picking them up more and more frequently.

This strategy can be a little more extreme. I have a pull-up bar in the doorway to the laundry room. Every time I walk into the laundry room, I do a pull-up. We also don’t have a kitchen table; instead there are balance beams and open floor space. I often walk across the slightly elevated 2×4 and round pipe without thinking much about it. Varied movement, then, becomes part of my day, a different type of movement habit that enhances whatever physical activity I choose to do.

And this, perhaps, is something worth considering. Movement, no matter how small, creates more movement. If the goal is to alter behavior and improve basic mobility and strength, making small changes to the environment in which we spend the most time will cause small changes in how we move and how we interact with our surroundings. These small changes can lead to bigger changes over time, until the familiar environment is no longer a place just for rest and relaxation; it becomes an opportunity for movement.

This, in my opinion, has been one of the most powerful things to come out of the current situation. Our view of our home environments was forced to shift if we wanted to continue a regular movement routine; with that shift came an alteration in how spaces were set-up and for some, an alteration in behavior. With the right input, habits can change, sometimes making a deep shift in the way we lead our lives.

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