After you receive diet and health advice, do you welcome it with open arms? Or do you end up feeling bad about yourself and your choices instead?

When we're told to exercise more, eat less of the junk food we love, and even be conscious of our vices, what is meant to be advice can actually trigger natural defenses in many people. Encouragement can be rejected, and so can a future full of better health. This, of course, can have a negative impact on our lives -- both at work and at home.

Emily Falk, Associate Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, emphasizes that defensiveness is one thing that prevents people from changing their behavior. Says Falk,

"When people are reminded that it's better to park the car further away and get in a few more steps, or to get up and move around at work to lower their risk for heart disease, they often come up with reasons why these suggestions might be relevant for somebody else, but not for them."

So how do we combat defensive feelings? One study at the University of Pennsylvania worked to explore this.

Researchers found that within a group of 220 sedentary adults, participants became more receptive to health advice after being "primed to either think about their most important values or to make well-wishes for others." The study revealed that when participants thought beyond themselves before viewing health messages, the very same health messages became more effective.

The reasons for this have much to do with intrinsically rewarding experiences. Lead author Yoona Kang, a postdoctoral fellow with the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, says, "When you are having concerns for others, these can be rewarding moments...People are capable of doing things for their loved ones that they'd probably never do for themselves."

Ultimately, says Falk, someone who thinks about the people and things that matter to them will see that their lack of physical activity is not tied to their self-worth.

And, as Kang adds: "...The idea of self-transcendence -- caring for others beyond one's own self-interest -- is a potentially powerful source of change."

If you want to exercise more and have a better diet but are resistant to changing some unhealthy behaviors, consider thinking of yourself -- but only after thinking about those you value the most.

Published on: Jan 2, 2019