Determinants of Healthy Behavior

Virgil once said, “the greatest wealth is health”. Nothing is a more basic requirement for the enjoyment of the human existence than physical health and well-being. The emerging human health challenges in the 21st century are those related to lifestyle, such as unhealthy eating habits, the use of tobacco or other drugs, unsafe sex, the failure to be physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and use of sun screen. Health behaviors, such as these, are leading contributors to morbidity and premature mortality. For example, although the causes of cancer are varied and complex, it has been estimated by the National Cancer Institute that as much as 50% of cancer could be prevented by modifying the aforementioned lifestyle behaviors. Beyond mortality, physical health problems are also costly to individuals in regard to symptoms and distress, as well as in terms of medical costs and loss of work productivity. Current health problems in our modern society are intensified by an aging population, persistent health disparities, and human-made environments resulting in undesired health consequences.

The InSPHIRe lab team is interested in understanding and motivating healthy behavior. Research has focused on improving health behaviors including exercise, nutrition, sunscreen application, and dental hygiene. Below are some examples of research issues that our lab has been investigating:

Although prominent theories of health behavior differ in terms of their specific focal constructs, most emphasize thoughtful decision-making (e.g., weighing benefits versus barriers to healthy eating). Recently, work in the InSPHIRe lab has begun exploring the possibility that affective variables (e.g., feelings about exercise) are critical determinants of health behavior change. We are examining issues relating to both conscious and nonconscious feelings and have thus far found that affect is a unique and valuable determinant of health behavior across many samples (e.g., college students, adult cancer survivors, and inner city high school students) and domains. Studies are underway that explore the mediators and moderators of the relationship between affect and health behavior and that test for interventions strategies that might be useful for increase healthy behavior through affective changes.

People are often unsure of whether they are doing “enough” of a health behavior, whether this be eating enough health foods or getting enough vigorous exercise. Reflecting on absolute amounts of such behaviors (e.g., number of steps walked, servings of vegetables eaten) is often unsatisfying, ambiguous, and uncertain. To place behaviors into context, individuals often rely on a range of comparative reference points, including social comparisons to other people, temporal comparisons to past or future selves, dimensional comparisons to other domains, or prescriptive comparisons to idealized standards. Recent research in the InSPHIRe lab has developed comparison-based interventions to change feelings, cognitions, and behaviors in the context of health (e.g., physical activity, healthy eating). The goal of this research is to determine why, when, and for whom comparative referents motivate positive health behavior initiation and maintenance.

For a list of relevant citations, click here.