How do you motivate good behavior?

I had a ton of fun writing in the spring issue of DMU Magazine about the healthy cooking class co-taught in our Wellness Center kitchen by David Spreadbury, Ph.D., chair of biochemistry and nutrition, and Joy Schiller, M.S., CHES, director of DMU’s wellness program (with frequent “guest demonstrations” by other faculty). While the course feels like dinner among friends – which, in part, it is – its purpose is serious: to demonstrate to future physicians that cooking can be healthy, affordable and doable.

That’s an increasingly important message for everyone. More than one-third of U.S. adults and nearly one-fifth of American children are obese, thanks in large part to our high-fat, high-calorie diets overflowing with soda, fast food, salty snacks and too-few fruits and vegetables.

How do we get people to just walk away from the buffet?

Primary care practitioners can serve as the “first line of defense against the obesity epidemic,” stated a recent edition of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” program that explored how doctors talk to patients about unhealthy habits. “But when it comes to what happens between doctors and patients behind closed doors,” added host Neal Conan, “some wonder whether doctors can really convince their patients to make permanent lifestyle changes.”

The barriers are many. They include the limited time physicians spend with each patient; how effectively can a physician communicate to a patient in, say, 15 to 20 minutes, how to lose weight, exercise more and cook more healthfully? And even when physicians can do so, just how many of us are ready to embrace the sometimes-daunting fact we need to change our evil ways?

Dr. Ranit Mishori, a family physician in Washington, DC, who was a guest on this “Talk of the Nation” episode, described another challenge in motivating behavior change: simply knowing how to do it. “I could count on one hand the number of hours during my medical education – both in medical school and residency – that were specifically focused on how to talk to patients about behavior change,” Mishori said. “And we don’t really do a very good job in teaching our learners, our students, our future doctors, how to do that.”

DMU’s healthy cooking class is an example of how the University is working to teach future doctors such lessons. Students in the class say it’s working.

“I’ll need to give [patients] practical ways they can reach healthy goals,” says second-year osteopathic medical student Stacie Kamada. “You can’t just tell people, ‘You need to lose weight.'”

If you’re a health care provider, do you make an intentional effort to talk to your patients about eating less and exercising more? If so, what have you found to be most effective in motivating healthier behaviors?

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