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To change or not to change?

“Be the change you want to see in the world” is great advice often bandied about on social media—but have you ever thought about your willingness and ability to change? I mean, really sat down and thought about it? Some people thrive on change—they change their hair, change their social activities, or even change their jobs as easy as they change clothes. Others avoid change at all cost.

When it comes to embracing change, most of us are probably somewhere in the middle. For example, I’m pretty open to trying new foods, but when they closed my favorite go-to place for lobster bisque, my world got flipped upside down. The loss of my favorite comforting staple threw me for more of a loop than I realized, over a change I previously thought I’d be comfortable making. What’s a little soup in the grand scheme of life changes?

OK, I digress - enough about food….but apply that thought to some key areas of wellness.

Apply it to your willingness to start a new exercise program, or your ability to get past emotional pain and improve a fractured relationship. How about your willingness to do something about the memory lapses you’ve been having lately? Now, your willingness to embrace change becomes much more important and impactful than lobster bisque.

So, why does this matter? Why do we care where someone is in terms of their willingness and ability to change? Well, if we want to encourage change in someone else, especially if it would bring positive benefits to that person, we need to know where they stand on the topic right at this very moment in their lives. It’s critical to understand where someone is on some sort of behavior change scale, because meeting people where they are increases their likelihood of making long-term improvements with their wellbeing.

There’s a ton of literature out there on theories of change, but to break it down into easy-to-digest chunks, this is what a simple scale of behavior change would look like:

This is taken from the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (which actually has 5 stages in its full form). We’ve boiled it down to 3 stages as it relates to one’s wellness:

  1. Pre-Contemplative: Someone who has never considered a specific health behavior. They may even be unaware of the need.

  2. Contemplative: Someone in this phase is thinking about taking action. Somewhere in the back of their mind, there is an awareness that it would be good for them, but they still have reasons why they don’t do it.

  3. Active: The stage of change where someone starts an activity and is actively engaging in it. For instance, someone who joins and regularly attends a balance class.

It’s important to note that just because someone gets to a certain stage doesn’t mean they will remain there - the arrows on this graphic point both up and down! For example, I may have been actively working on my balance, but then I take a tumble and am stuck with an injury that pulls me out of that active phase. Once my injury heals, I may be in the contemplative stage, as I’m scared to start my balance classes again. If I’m feeling a bit unsteady on my feet compared to how I was before my fall, I may not be ready to jump right back into the “Active” phase of my fitness journey.

It’s also important to note that people are usually in different stages for different areas of wellness. For example, I could be actively working on my balance and, at the same time, thinking about what I could do to improve my memory--but I may not be sure how to start. Perhaps I haven’t even realized that there are some things I could and should be doing to work on my relationships with others! In three domains, I can be at different stages in this model of change.

Research shows that people move through these levels of change. What does this mean for you? In order to be effective in driving positive change, your approach with someone should be modified depending on what stage they are currently in. As you look at strategies to increase engagement or incite change, knowing where individuals are within these stages is key to lasting, real change. The strategy you employ to try and move someone “up” on this behavior change scale is quite different, depending on where they are starting. Not to mention, you’ll use a different strategy to help keep someone in the active stage!

Stay tuned for a future blog posts, where we’ll dive into the specific strategies for those who are Pre-Contemplative, Contemplative, and Active in their journey toward their best health.

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