09/21/2012 12:41 pm ET

Making Unhealthy Choices Harder Is Key To Eating Healthy, Study Suggests

By Katherine Harmon
(Click here for the original article and podcast)

Telling people to change unhealthy behaviors doesn’t work. Otherwise, we would all already be slim, fit, nonsmokers.

Whether it's habit, the temptation of an ad or just the easiest option, we often rely on automatic behaviors to get us through the day. And even though we know taking the elevator, grabbing a beer or drowning a salad in ranch dressing are not the healthiest choices, we keep making them. Unless those bad choices become too inconvenient.  

Making bad choices harder is actually the best way to help people get healthier, argues a new essay in the journal Science. [Theresa M. Marteau, Gareth J. Hollands and Paul C. Fletcher, Changing Human Behavior to Prevent Disease: The Importance of Targeting Automatic Processes]

Simply programming elevator doors to close really slowly actually motivates more people to climb stairs. Limiting the places that sell tobacco cuts overall consumption. And then there's the trusty old salad bar trick: put healthier options closer than other choices and more people pick them.  

Little changes like these reach everyone—not just the people targeted with a health message. And they get us healthier just by letting us stay on autopilot.