What Does it take to Change

by DavalosMcCormack on December 17, 2007

I once interviewed a man who had been a smoker for much of his life. He’d tried to quit a number of times – “half heartedly” – he told me, but never managed to stop for long.
When I met him he was recovering from surgery. He’d been diagnosed with lung cancer and had had half a lung removed. He was still smoking, but this time he was seriously thinking about giving up.

I don’t know if he ever did give up, or if he did if it was in time, but it got me wondering what it takes to get someone to make the changes they need to do to change their life, or even save their life.

In this man’s case his poison-of-choice was cigarettes but it could just as easily have been alcohol or food that he was using to slowly kill himself. The method is less important than the inability to change, even when the person recognizes the need to change and understands that what they are doing is not only reducing the length of their life, but also reducing the quality of it too.

Today we have more information than ever before on the health consequences of excess, be it smoking or eating or just a lack of physical activity. Yet that information is not getting through, because today we have more people who are overweight or even obese than ever before, we have more cases of diabetes and hypertension, more cases of heart disease. All of them are diseases of lifestyle. So why is this?

There are any number of possible reasons. One may be that we have too much information today, so much so that people can’t keep track of it all or decide what is appropriate for them. For example one study may say coffee is good for you while the next say it is dangerous. It’s no wonder some people simply throw their hands up and say ‘forget it’.

Another reason may be that the information is not even getting through, that many people don’t pay attention to the news or new studies. They may be focused on other things – will Britney get her kids back? Is Lindsay in or out of rehab this week? – and may be missing out on information that could actually help them.

It may even be that knowing something is bad for you and doing something about it are completely different things. We become addicted to a lifestyle just as readily as we become addicted to nicotine, and giving it up can be incredibly difficult.

In many poor neighborhoods the problems are even harder to overcome. There are fewer stores that sell fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables; there are fewer parks or open spaces for kids to play in or adults to exercise in. How can you cultivate good habits when you are working hard just to survive.

But regardless of the reason why we find it hard to change, the end result is the same, more of us carrying on with our old, bad habits, slowly sliding towards disease and disability.

So what can we do to make changes? It may be that collectively we can make it easier for us individually. First of all we need to make it as easy as possible to get the information we need to lead healthier lives. That means labels on all foods sold in stores, in fast food restaurants, anywhere food is bought or eaten, that tell us precisely what we are putting in our mouths.

We need to make it easier to be active and exercise. That means opening up schools and community centers to everyone after hours. They are publicly funded buildings so we, the public, should have the right to use them once the kids are finished for the day.

We need more attention paid by doctors and health care practitioners to preventive care, to educating us about what we need to do, and more importantly how we can do it. People listen to their physicians, they pay attention to what they say – even if they don’t always follow up on it. Physicians need to not only talk to patients about giving up smoking or being more active, they need to provide patients with information on how to do it and where to do it. That may mean HMOs and other health care organizations need to allow doctors to spend more time with patients, and not rush them through like cattle. Doctors may see fewer patients per day, but the end result may be fewer sick patients overall so ultimately we all benefit.

We need a national campaign to educate all of us about what we need to do. This needs to be simple, direct and high profile. It should use celebrities to drive the message home. It needs to be a part of the curriculum in every school, every college, every nursing home. It needs to be a national priority.

We put a man on the moon. We need to use that same drive and imagination and will and sense of national purpose to tackle what is arguably the greatest public health threat facing America today. We spend a lot of time worrying about avian flu coming to these shores. Guess what, there is an even greater threat already here and we’re virtually ignoring it.

Change is not impossible. A few years ago I interviewed a woman named Debi who was featured in an American Cancer Society anti-smoking ad. Debi had her larynx removed because of smoking-related cancer. After the surgery she had a voice box inserted in her throat to help her talk. She used that same hole to smoke her cigarettes. Despite the devastating impact smoking had on her Debi was unable to quit. Until one day when her grand daughter colored a hole on her own throat saying she wanted to look like her granny. Debi stopped smoking cold turkey.

We need to help everyone change before they reach that last, desperate point.

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