Overweight Australians can't go it alone

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Australians trying to change unhealthy eating habits or improve fitness are reducing their chance of long-term success by relying solely on willpower, resisting expert help and failing to enlist family and social support.

According to new research released today by the Australian Psychological Society (APS), 97 per cent of people surveyed had tried to change their eating habits. But, 39 per cent said they didn’t always stick to the changes and a further 22 per cent reported the changes lasted no longer than a few weeks or months before they lapsed back into old habits.

To mark National Psychology Week 12 – 18 November 2006, the APS conducted the online survey of more than 1,200 people across Australia, designed to better understand why and how people undertake changes to their eating or physical activity habits.

The main motivation for changing eating habits was improving physical appearance (44%), followed by improvement in general health (31%). The motivation was similar for changing physical activity habits.

In attempting to make health changes, almost two-thirds of people relied on their own willpower as the main strategy to change their eating habits, compared with only 14 per cent who enlisted the support of family and 15 per cent who worked with a friend to make the changes.Over half didn’t seek any professional help.

APS president Amanda Gordon says that the research shows that people are trying to change habits but most are failing because they lack the skills and support.

“Many people rush out and follow the latest fad diet or exercise craze but don’t spend time thinking about the support mechanisms to keep up the changes. Even people with strong willpower are bound to fail without some sort of support, whether that be from family, friends or professionals,” according to Gordon.

“However, reaching out to friends and family won’t solve all the problems. As a nation battling an obesity crisis, we need to shift our thinking from ‘fad diets’ and ‘fat tax’ to a focus on equipping people with the skills to change their individual behaviour for the long-term,” she says.

“On a practical level, it’s important for people who are trying to make changes to recognise their individual motivations and behaviour so that they can implement change strategies that are going to work best for them”, says Gordon.

Some positive news from the survey is that 26 per cent of people stuck to changes to their eating habits for more than six months. This supports research that shows once people reach a point where the behaviour is incorporated into their everyday life, they are more likely to maintain change.

“The danger period for trying to affect long-term change comes after a few months when people think they’re doing well so they let the support systems slip. They may cancel the personal training appointments or quit attending their weight loss program sessions,” says Ms Gordon.

“You really need all the help you can get until you reach a point where the habits just become a way of life,” she says.

The survey also included a psychological test that measured the individuals’ ability to manage health issues and concerns and a Body Mass Index (BMI) calculator.

Of the 80 per cent of people who provided details to calculate their BMI, over half were considered to be overweight or obese. However, 47 percent of the people classified as ‘overweight’ reported that they do not have a weight problem.

“People classified as obese reported the highest level of negative emotions when attempting to change eating behaviours and physical activity. They also had the lowest self-esteem of all groups when attempting to make the change,” says Ms Gordon.

“Not surprisingly, the obese group also reported the lowest level of actual success in changing their eating and physical behaviour habits.”

“To successfully treat weight problems, we must first address the emotional and psychological issues related to self-esteem. It is not a question of what diet a person follows, but whether they stick to it,” she says.

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Practising psychologists Amanda Gordon (APS President) and Dr Helen Lindner are available for interview.

To schedule an interview or photo opportunity please contact:

  • Elaine Grant on 03 8662 3363 or 0412 683 068.

Referral service

The APS runs a free referral service for the public, GPs and other health professionals who are seeking the advice and assistance of a qualified psychologist.

Call 1800 333 497
or visit Find a Psychologist to find a psychologist in any area in Australia.

Top five tips on getting motivated and sticking to changes:

  1. Recognise that your health is important. Making changes to your eating and exercise habits is not something you have to do on your own.
  2. Enlist professional help if you can, but don’t underestimate the support of family and friends.
  3. One size doesn’t fit all - recognise your own individual style, goals and barriers to changing your behaviour and work with, or around them.
  4. Get through the change danger period – if you are going well after a few months don’t abandon all your support strategies or you could slip back into old habits.
  5. It’s not just about the physical – address self esteem and emotional issues that are standing in the way of successful change.