THE BLOG
12/04/2014 04:20 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

The Changes We Wish We Could Make: How to Inspire Personal Behavior Change for a Healthy and Sustainable Future

Why are simple choices so hard to make, even when they might benefit us? Like going for a run or eating healthier food options? It should be so much easier to make those simple choices that benefit us -- but we don't. And those choices we don't make have a much wider impact than just benefiting our own personal health and well-being.

Around the world, health care systems are struggling to deliver affordable, quality care amid increasing demands from growing and aging populations and the rise of chronic disease. Those personal choices we make as individuals, if not healthy, can increase the collective burden on the health care system. Governments and health care companies are only part of the solution in creating a sustainable and healthier future in a global health care system where 80 percent of cardiovascular diseases and 40 percent of cancers are preventable; personal decisions and responsibility also play a large role. Therefore the path forward seems simple: educate and inspire people to change their personal behaviors in order to promote a healthier lifestyle.

Yet indicators show that although people know better and generally aspire to be healthy, we still have trouble changing unhealthy behaviors. What can we do, as business and community leaders, to make individual behavior change easier? This was the question we posed to leading experts representing businesses, NGOs, start-ups and government earlier this year at the annual Social Innovation Summit (SIS) at the United Nations. With counsel ranging from institutional level to personal decision-making, some of their insights might surprise you; it did for us:

- Start with awareness. "Google powers people to get the information and access to what they want, when they want... like the calorie count of a banana," said Scott Schwaitzberg of Google.org. "If you can remove barriers to information, presumably, some people will take advantage of it." In recent years, many restaurants have added nutritional information to their menus, and anecdotal evidence suggests this does make a difference in purchasing behavior. However, studies--such as those published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation--have shown there is not always a significant change in what people actually buy, so we can infer that awareness is only the first part of the equation.

  • Make the healthy choice the default choice. Natalia Agapitova of the World Bank noted that in developed countries, many situations that enable health -- consuming vitamin-enriched food or following mandatory vaccination schedules for children -- are incentivized by or enforced through government regulations. Studies have shown that people are inclined to choose the default option. Thus, the one that bolsters health should be the obvious and default choice, not an alternative.
  • Don't always give people what they say they want. Paul Bakus of Nestle explained, "People say they want healthier things, but when you label something 'low sodium,' then they automatically think it's going to taste bad, so they don't buy it. As a company, we make the decision to do it anyway, because it's better for people." In creating the infrastructure to help people live healthier, we need to be aware that sometimes what consumers say they want and what they actually choose can conflict and make our decisions accordingly.
  • Focus on both incentivizing and enduring. "Sometimes an atypical approach can have the best results, like harnessing the power and appeal of technology to boost physical activity and sustain it over time," said Richard Tate of HopeLab. The trick isn't getting people to do something -- it's getting them to continue doing it. An incentive, like the fun associated with gaming, can jump-start a behavior and maintain it over time.
  • Build better infrastructure for health. "Before you can have meaningful behavior change, you need to remove the structural barriers that are in place, or add structure in place that actually enables people to make that change," said Aria Finger of DoSomething.org. For the 23.5 million people in the U.S. who live with food scarcity or in food deserts, healthier eating simply is not an option -- even when desired. The right infrastructure provides access, and structural change will drive personal behavior change.

Inspiring and maintaining personal behavior change is not easy, but ensuring a sustainable health care system for future generations is worth it. Behavior change is neither simple nor linear; it will require greater awareness, commitment, innovation and collaboration. From making positive behaviors fun through games, leveraging new technologies, partnering with governments or learning from other companies, we look forward to the challenge.

Are you ready to take up the challenge by making personal behaviour changes that both support your own wellbeing and health and help ensure health care for the future? Or if you have already -- how can we motivate broader societal change to collectively create a more sustainable and healthier future?