Despite our best intentions, we sometimes fall short in our quest to instill healthier behaviors. Learning what your barriers are - and how to overcome them - can make all the difference in your success.

You may have tried time and again to eat healthier, exercise more, get more sleep, or break that caffeine addiction.  But if your best intentions have resulted in little success, if any, you are far from alone.

Adopting healthier lifestyle behaviors can be hard. A number of barriers can stand in our way, making even starting our journey toward health feel like a losing battle.

Following through on our intended goals requires not only time, commitment, practice, and support, but also a complete understanding of the barriers to our success that are in play.

Why is it so hard for us to change?

Resistance to change is a natural tendency most of us have. As humans, we value predictability, routine, and balance - a maintained, stable state of equilibrium. In sum, we like to stay within our comfort zones.

So in order to protect ourselves from the discomfort we might experience with change, we develop emotional tactics or barriers such as behaviors, attitudes, and traits that allow us to resist it. This can happen even when we want to change, and know full well that a change will be good for us.

People naturally cling to their old behaviors and attitudes to avoid the feelings of stress, lack of control, and feelings of uncertainty that change brings.  We sometimes find that change can be difficult to approach and out of our comfort zone.

What are the primary barriers to making healthy changes that last?

People can experience both internal and external emotional barriers to resist change. This can make it more challenging for people to make healthy changes.

Internal barriers

Denial of the problem. Acknowledging that a problem actually exists is a crucial first step to making a healthy change. Often, we are stuck in denial, minimizing its risk to our health and safety.

Struggling to reach goals. Even when we accept the problem and know we need to change, we can struggle to reach our goals because we lack the know-how or confidence that we can actually change. Plus, improving the situation may feel too overwhelming at first. It's best to start with small, manageable goals that you can accomplish more easily.

Diminished enthusiasm. Reaching a healthy goal is one thing, but making a healthy change a  permanent fixture in our lives can be much more challenging. Too often our motivation wanes, we feel discouraged about a lull in improvement, or we do not have enough social support.

Fear of taking risks. Fear is a valuable emotion that helps warn us against danger and making hasty decisions, but it can easily overwhelm and paralyze us, keeping us squarely in our comfort zone. Fear often exaggerates risk and keeps us from adopting necessary positive changes. We can also fear the failure of reaching our goals, or may feel frustrated when not meeting our goals as expected.

Resignation of the current situation. Feeling resigned or accepting of our current situation helps to keep us mentally grounded and self-aware. But making peace with it can also prevent us from trying new things and challenging our unhelpful attitudes and behaviors. Resignation can persuade us that our limitations are true and cannot be changed.

External barriers

We are sometimes confronted with barriers that make it less easy and practical to adopt healthy habits.  One study by O’Neill et al., (2004) illustrated this reality by assessing the attitudes of 115 subjects regarding healthy eating. Out of the 115 participants, seventy five were female and forty were male. Nineteen were under 18, 24 aged 19-30, 51 aged 31-60 and 21 aged over 60 years. Research was conducted over four days and consisted of various questionnaires to investigate the barriers to healthier eating and how they might be overcome. Participants had good general knowledge of the impact of diet on health. For example, most participants knew that eating red meat and excess sugar was considered to be “unhealthy”, and they associated fish, chicken, and vegetables as “healthy” food.  The results indicated that it was seen that women with children especially found it difficult to improve their family’s eating habits due to lack of cooking skills and difficulties getting their children to eat healthier meals due to tv commercials, and unhealthy snacks at school.

Here is a list of the barriers that were mentioned:

Not knowing how to prepare healthier foods. Lacking the basic education required to prepare wholesome meals can be a significant obstacle to adopting consistent healthy eating habits.

Lacking the monetary funds to buy nutritious food. The price of food is a primary driver in decision making for many people at the grocery store, and healthy foods are perceived to be more costly than unhealthy foods - and it appears that this perception is true. A 2017 study by Kern et al., (2017) analyzed the food prices of healthy and unhealthy foods among 794 supermarkets across the United States and found that healthier foods in fact do cost almost twice as much as unhealthier foods per serving.

Not having the time to cook meals from scratch. Parents are busy people, many times juggling childcare, full-time jobs, and chores at home. Taking the time to cook a wholesome meal is a luxury many feel they cannot afford to enjoy.

Feeling confused by conflicting messages. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the seemingly endless and conflicting information dispensed by health experts. For example, eggs were once warned against containing too much cholesterol, yet are now accepted - based on new research - as a nutritious addition to a well-rounded diet for most healthy adults.

Overcoming the barriers to making healthy habits

Psychological and external factors can act as real hurdles to adopting healthy changes, but we do have the ability to overcome them with proper planning, the right mindset, and practice. The Association of Talent Development created a handbook of tips to help overcome barriers to making healthy habits.

Make small daily changes. What specific behavior would you like to change? Make sure you set realistic expectations.

Results. Which meaningful rewards or consequences will you give yourself for successful or ineffective behavior change?

Create a daily routine. Set benchmarks for yourself on the calendar, discuss your goals with a buddy who will keep you accountable, and decide how you will monitor your own progress.

Identify your barriers. Educate yourself about the specific barriers that are blocking you from reaching your own goal, visualize the positive effects of adopting the new healthy behavior, and acknowledge that you do have the capacity to reach it.

Ask for help. Needing extra assistance when trying to adopt healthy behavior change is not a sign of failure. Enlist the help of a coach, your friends, or family to help maintain your motivation and keep your spirits up.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has identified four stages of making healthy changes: contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. Can you recognize yourself in one of these stages as you look toward adopting healthier habits?

  1. Contemplation: Even if you are not ready to actually start making a change and don't know exactly how to go about it, you're still thinking about it.

2. Preparation: You are finally ready to start making changes. You're making plans to take action toward meeting specific goals.

3. Action: You are acting on your plan to make changes. This can include reducing screen time, getting more sleep, making healthy eating choices, and working out.

4. Maintenance: You have adjusted to your new changes as they've become a normal part of your day-to-day routine. Have a setback? That's okay - you know what you need to do to get back to your new habits.

It's not always easy to change habits, especially ones that have been lifelong. Making positive changes for your health can be a process, and can sometimes take time to become a regular part of your life. But the effort is worth it! Adopting new, healthier habits, even small ones, can add up to reduce your risk of many health conditions like diabetes and obesity. If you make sure to stick to it, your new habits will become routine before you know it!