Several years ago my mother decided to improve her health by losing a significant amount of weight. She was morbidly obese, and had been for many years. In fact, I cannot remember a time when she was not extremely overweight. In her family, and by the same token, mine as well, most struggled with their weight. My mother, my father, my siblings, and even I, have struggled with maintaining a healthy weight. Diabetes plagued most of my family members. My mother's diabetes was slowly spiraling out of control as her weight and eating habits slowly deteriorated. She had been under enormous amounts of stress at work and she began to eat more than her normal, consuming vast amounts of food that affected the control of her diabetes.
During one follow-up appointment with her physician he told her that they would soon have to place her on insulin shots to control her diabetes. My mother, ever the needle phobic, was shocked. It made her realize how heavy she had become, and quite frankly scared her. She implored the doctor to help her avoid insulin at any cost.
I've always wondered if that doctor had any faith that she would stick to the dietary, weight loss, and exercise changes he recommended. Did he look at her, and her chart, and think that she too would forsake his advice, as perhaps other patients had?
If there was ever a time that my mother was motivated to lose weight, this was it.
The theory of planned behavior states that the best way to alter someone's behavior is to change their intentions. In other words, our intentions define our behavior (Schneider, Gruman, Coutts, 2012). For many years my mother's intentions were to find pleasure through consuming food. She does not deny this and has often attested to this same sentiment. Her intentions led to behavior that negatively affecter her health and led to a health crisis.
Behavioral intentions are guided by three things, according to the authors of Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems: attitudes toward the behavior, subjective norms about the behavior, and lastly, perceived control over the behavior . According to the theory of planned behavior, for my mother to experience behavior change her intentions had to change via these three things.
First, her attitude towards her overeating and lack of exercise changed. Obviously she was motivated to change her habits, but her attitude changed as well. She knew overeating and not exercise were going to kill her or cause her adverse effects and she was motivated to change. Her decision to lose weight was also affected by her perceptions of what others thought, or the subjective norms concerning this behavior. She knew how her doctor felt, and for years, she had heard from family members how concerned they were about her steadily increasing weight. These things motivated her change in behavior as well. Lastly, for change to occur she had to believe she could lose weight via a diet and exercise regime. For years, this had been her biggest deterrent. She had tried many times to change her eating habits only to fail and feel worse about herself. She had been convinced she could not do it. This time, her attitude had changed. She was more aware and accepting of what others thought about her weight gain and its health affects. She felt that she could finally lose weight.
When my mother began to lose weight she was around 350 pounds. Walking was tiring for her. Her joints hurt, her knees hurt, she felt physically poor most of the time. She did not feel comfortable joining a gym and so she began to research what her options were: remember, she was motivated, her behavioral intentions had changed, just as the theory of planned behavior would predict. She found a DVD program whose premise was walking to lose weight, right there in place, in front of the TV. When she first started she would do 10 minutes 3 times a day. During her lunch hour at her school she would walk the hallways. Soon, she had increased this to 20 minutes 3 times a day, and finally to 30 minutes twice a day, with a 10 to 20 minute walk during her lunch hour. Her eating habits changed, and although she admitted that most nights she fell asleep hungry and in tears, she stuck to it.
Fast forward eight years and the woman who I had always known as obese could swap size 8 clothes with me. She has maintained her eating habits and continues to walk to keep weight gain at bay. She typically takes a long walk in the morning time, typically a few miles. She enjoys the things her weight loss has brought her, including better health outcomes. In fact, other than monitoring her blood sugar she does not take diabetes medication at all. Her blood pressure normalized as well.
My mother's weight loss has always been incredibly inspiring to me. It was not an easy journey, or a quick one, but her attitude towards weight gain, and her ability to see herself as in control, have led to lasting changes.
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.