The Surprising Practice That Actually Makes People Want To Be Healthier

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Even for the most dedicated of health aficionados, staying "on track" can sometimes be difficult. We all go through highs and lows—some of which bring on a serious lull in motivation. So the question is: How can you get yourself motivated again once you're in the slump? Many people know from experience that it's not as simple as giving yourself a pep talk, and sometimes hearing advice from people who are doing great with their health goals can even trigger a bit of defensiveness.

Well, a new study published in the journal PNAS offers one surprising and heartwarming practice that could help you overcome your motivational hurdles: looking at the big picture.

Researchers studied 220 adults who led mostly sedentary lifestyles, meaning they lacked any substantial physical activity in their daily lives. They asked some of the participants to complete a task meant to trigger what the researchers called "self-transcendence," which refers to thinking beyond yourself as an individual. They encouraged these people to spend some time thinking deeply about their family, friends, personal values, and spirituality, remembering specific moments when they connected with these people and ideas. The rest of the participants completed "non-transcendent" tasks that required them to think about less important factors in their lives.

Each group then viewed "blunt" health messages urging them to be more active and warning them of the health risks associated with being overweight. (For example: "The American Heart Association says sedentary people like you are at serious risk for heart disease. This means more pills and higher risk of sickness and death.") Then, over the course of the next month, participants received daily text messages with further health suggestions, either with self-transcendent thoughts included or without. The results, without question, showed that those who viewed self-transcendent messages engaged in more physical activity over the following weeks.

In other words, spending some time thinking about the people you love and your most deeply held values might actually make you more motivated to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

"People often report that self-transcendence is an intrinsically rewarding experience," said Yoona Kang, a University of Pennsylvania postdoctoral fellow and a lead author of the study, in a news release. "When you are having concerns for others, these can be rewarding moments."

This, in turn, prompts people to be more open to suggestions about their health. "People are capable of doing things for their loved ones that they'd probably never do for themselves," Kang said. "The idea of self-transcendence—caring for others beyond one's own self-interest—is a potentially powerful source of change."

It's a good practice to put into action, whether you're someone who wants to make a health change or wants to respectfully offer advice to a friend or family member who tends to get a little defensive about their lifestyle choices.

"When it comes to making changes and finding the motivation to stick to them, make sure it's something you personally value," sports psychologist Amy Baltzell told mbg. "At some point—if you feel like you are being forced, controlled, restricted, or trapped into changing—you will fail."

For anyone who's in a bit of a health slump, consider spending time each morning reflecting on your family, friends, and whatever else feeds your soul. Reflect on what these things mean to you—how they influence your everyday life, and what it would mean if these precious things were taken from you. You might consider even making a list of small daily goals for you to tackle over the next week that feel inspired by the people and things you love most.

Making healthy lifestyle choices often starts with a bit of self-reflection and positive thinking to light a fire in you to make the change, whatever that may be. And focusing on the bigger picture—the idea that we're so much more than ourselves and our physical bodies—could very well be the added push you need to reach your wellness goals.

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