Americans report willpower and stress as obstacles in APA poll

Many Americans are making efforts toward living a healthier lifestyle, but they face obstacles like willpower, making change alone and stress.

By Public Relations Staff

March 31, 2010 — 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 earlier this month, 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)* 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,” she added.

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 Div. 38 (Health Psychology), Karina Davidson, PhD. “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 people navigate feelings and gain skills to successfully change behavior. With help, individuals can develop willpower and better stick to health-centered goals.

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