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Just do it!

We all know at least one thing we could do to make ourselves healthier, but there’s just one little problem: we have no interest in actually doing it. Take a moment to imagine a life choice that you have ABSOLUTELY NO interest in doing, but others say is “good for you.” Perhaps volunteering with children, running for fun, or becoming vegan. Do you have something in mind?

What would it take to get you to do that thing? Nike’s well-known ad campaign tells us to “Just do it!” While it sounds good in theory (and has sold a lot of shoes) it is not how it works in real life. When it comes to doing something to improve our wellness, or really doing anything we don’t initially want to do, it takes more than a slogan to propel us to choose to act. There’s probably nothing anyone could say to get you to do something that you don’t want to do. Until you decideyou want to do something, you won’t do it.

This is especially true in senior living communities. When it comes to senior wellness, only a minority of people within a community are actively prepared to change behaviors at any given time. Therefore, using an action-oriented approach to increasing engagement in wellness activities will often fall on deaf ears for those who are not even considering making a change to their current status.

How then does anyone change and choose to do things that are truly good for them? We all know someone (or of someone) who made a significant change. How does a self-proclaimed couch potato become a triathlete? How does a heartbroken person (who swears off relationships) decide to open up and love again? How does a senior who states they’re too old to try something new end up coming to their community’s wellness classes?

Lasting change rarely occurs as the result of a single decision to act. The choice to try something--and then stick with it--is often a subtle, complex, and non-linear progression of thought.

So how does this come to life for us? How do we help the community members we work with (as well as our friends, family members, and even ourselves) embrace participating in their own wellness when they don’t seem to want to?

Studies repeatedly show that the brain must change before the body acts! It all starts with helping people successfully open their minds. The first step is the easiest: the decision to start a new healthy behavior begins by thinking about it. In many cases, people are simply not aware of the risks and benefits of certain behaviors. If you don’t know something is good or bad for you, you probably wouldn’t even think about changing.

Let’s consider an example from the past. Back in the day, it was commonplace to see every Hollywood star smoking in the movies. Smoking was cool! No one gave it a second thought. Doctors and nurses smoked in the hospitals, there were ashtrays in every waiting room, and non-smoking sections of restaurants didn’t exist. Why would anyone even think about quitting this “glamorous” habit? While many studies linked smoking to cancer all the way back to the 40s and 50s, this information moved slowly on its way to the public eye. It wasn’t until the 60’s when anti-smoking public ad campaigns really took off, illustrating both the dangers of smoking and the benefits of quitting. Since then, cigarette smoking among U.S. adults has been reduced by more than half. How did this happen? Awareness was the first step towards behavior change.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who does not know the detrimental effects of smoking, and yet there are still those who light up regularly. Imagine telling someone to “Just quit!” when it comes to smoking. The psychology behind that statement is the same as telling someone to “Just Do It.” It doesn’t work. So, what does?

First and foremost, people make personal decisions based on the pros and cons to them as an individual. While one person may respond to a message that smoking during pregnancy can cause babies to be born underweight, another would not; but perhaps they would respond to knowing that smoking causes cancer. Without knowing, people cannot make informed choices. Public service campaigns to educate a community about what wellness is, and what the benefits are, is a great place to start. Consistently advertising the specific positive outcomes of practicing wellness is extremely helpful.

Once people are aware of the situation and their personal need for change, they must size up the mountain they have to climb. People need to believe that they actually can make a change, and that that change will have positive impact on their lives. The journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, but if all people know is how daunting the journey is, they won’t move a muscle. Without the belief in one’s ability to experience success, most do not see any value in trying. People must know that small changes can make a big difference, that research shows positive change can happen at any age, and that any time is a good time to start. Help them by letting them know what positive changes they can expect from their efforts and highlight the successes of other community members who are actively engaged in their wellness.

Perhaps the most compelling reason that many individuals don’t choose to change is because they have tried before and it didn’t work. Just like smoking, it is common to slip back to previous behaviors and struggle to sustain the positive changes. Acknowledge and address those past attempts yet keep the focus on the opportunity to choose to try again or to try a different approach. Smoking one cigarette after quitting for months doesn’t mean someone is a failure. Missing an exercise class or dropping out of a volunteer group is the same. Life happens. Getting back on track can happen anytime!

In short, to truly start the cycle of positive change, start with the facts to spread awareness. Then, make it personal. Finally, break it down and make it simple to start. When it’s simple to start, even when we fall off the wellness wagon, we can hop back onto it even if we regress.

Those basic steps can help move someone from digging their heels into the wellness sand to making a consistent and real change in their wellness. Janice M. Prochaska, PhD, who serves as CEO of Pro-Change Behavior Systems shares that research shows that if we can get someone to open their minds and even contemplate changing their behavior, we double their chances of being successful six to twelve months down the road. Progress to increased participation isn’t a flip of a switch, it’s an ongoing work in progress.

Getting community members to even think about change is a victory, as then the mind is open to possibilities!

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