The influence of lifestyle behaviors on health is interesting and relevant for every individual, whether one takes a public-health perspective focused on the prevention of chronic illness for the majority of citizens or a personal perspective while pondering what to have for lunch. It has become clear over the past 50 years that behavior and health are inseparably entwined. Research supports the notion that the way people live their lives, including their activity levels, eating habits, stress-management practices, and substance-use habits, strongly influences their likelihood of developing many of the most-common health problems. Scientists have discovered which lifestyle behaviors generally serve to prevent chronic illness and injury, as well as to optimize quality of life on a daily basis. In fact, most people have a rough idea of what they should eat and how much they should exercise, and they know they should drink less alcohol or quit smoking. What is the final frontier in public health and medical care? Motivating and guiding people to do what they already know they should do.
I have been fascinated with health and exercise psychology since I designed my first health behavior course in the Department of Exercise and Sport Studies at Smith College in 1985. In that same year, I started writing articles featuring concepts in applied exercise science for health and fitness professionals, translating scientific research into more-accessible language. Since that time, I have had the pleasure of working with hundreds of students and professionals who have sought to better understand exercise adherence and other applications of health and exercise psychology and behavior change theory. As a group exercise instructor, personal trainer, lifestyle coach, and fitness program director, I have coached hundreds of clients to adopt new behaviors and resolutions and been inspired by the effort and strategies they bring to the behavior-change process.
Many students in the allied health sciences and in exercise science fields study health and exercise psychology for their degrees and for their work. The more we learn about health, the more experts agree that an interdisciplinary approach yields the best understanding about topics in health and health behavior. Health psychology helps clinicians figure out what makes their patients sick and clients tick. Exercise psychology provides fascinating knowledge about the psychophysiological benefits of physical activity and the many factors related to exercise adherence. This text draws from both fields to create an applied psychology perspective most helpful for understanding health behavior.
Health and fitness professionals recommend lifestyle change to prevent and treat illness and injury. Professionals need to know not only which lifestyle changes to recommend but also how to communicate these recommendations to patients in ways that are understandable and that motivate patients to follow them. For example, exercise science students hoping to work as health and fitness professionals need more than knowledge of exercise physiology to help their clients design effective lifestyle interventions for disease prevention and the promotion of optimal health. Students studying athletic training or physical therapy must acquire not only knowledge and skills in the assessment and treatment of injury and illness but also the behavioral-counseling skills that enable them to connect with their patients. This connection is essential to better understand the patient’s medical needs and then design and deliver treatment recommendations in ways most likely to lead to successful engagement in the rehabilitation program. Coaching education students must be masters not only of their sport in terms of teaching motor skills and playing strategy and structuring effective conditioning and training programs but also of motivating their athletes to train for peak performance.
Psychology texts can be difficult reading for some students whose primary interests are the physical sciences. Such students often find that psychological variables are more difficult to “see” than physical characteristics such as muscle strength, blood pressure, or body composition. Psychologists must go to great lengths to define and manipulate variables to establish relationships among the many intangible factors that explain behavior. Many students have a hard time visualizing the complex psychological models of behavior. They respond more readily to an instructional approach that links theory and application. Students learn more from textbooks that stimulate their interest while presenting theoretical explanations. This applied health and fitness psychology textbook not only teaches students about the current theories in health psychology and exercise psychology, but it also anchors this learning in real-life application. This link to application engages students more deeply in learning and increases the depth of their understanding, as well as their effectiveness in their future lives and work.