We're not claiming to be the pinnacle of perfect health, but whether it’s a friend, family member, or significant other, many of us have a loved one who needs a nudge in the right direction. Maybe it's someone who could get off the couch more often. Or add some leafy greens to their diet. Perhaps drink a little less or give up smoking?
As you’ve probably learned, there are right ways—and wrong ways—to encourage others to adopt healthier habits. If you want to help someone in your life make a positive change, here are six ways to do so (without coming off as a condescending jerk).
1. Clear up misconceptions.
There's a lot of info out there about health and wellness, so cut through the static for your friends and family. For example, many people believe that to fit in exercise, you have to go to a gym—and it has to hurt, says Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D., a kinesiology professor at Jacksonville University. “That’s simply not true. Just go for a walk or find an activity you enjoy.” (Maybe an Angry Birds or Star Wars workout is more your thing.)
The same illogic applies to foods we’ve learned are “good for us,” she points out. Brussels sprouts definitely don't have to be bland and soggy, and a healthier diet doesn't mean you're limited to tasteless egg whites and baked chicken. (These 29 delicious, clean-eating recipes prove it.) And while you're at it, maybe stop referring to your favorite foods as "healthy"—research shows even labeling an energy bar as healthy can lower how full it makes us feel.
Keep in mind that personality plays a huge part in what people will find appealing too. “Extroverts, for instance, tend to like more high-energy and group-based exercise than introverts,” Hausenblas says, “whereas someone who is more open to experience may prefer outdoor exercise above inside activities.”
2. Point out the positives.
Next up: helping someone appreciate the benefits of exercising, eating healthy, or cutting back on how much they drink or smoke, says Alexander J. Rothman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota and president of the Society for Health Psychology. "What’s obvious to you isn’t always obvious to someone else. Don’t just assume they recognize the benefits—point out the positives."
Do this (nicely) by commenting how awesome it would be not to get winded when walking up the stairs, or how much better they'll feel Saturday mornings without staying out until 2 a.m. every Friday. Or point out to your doughnut-loving friend all the amazing health benefits of cutting back on sugar that have nothing to do with losing weight. If they’re a smoker wanting to quit, remind them how much nicer they’ll smell—and how much money they’ll save—once they give up cigarettes.
Telling people how beneficial their new behaviors might be to those they love (you included!) can also help, Rothman notes. Don't just say, If you get in shape, you'll feel a lot better. Try You’ll be able to play more with our kids/have more fun with your friends. The better you know the person, the more you’ll understand what—and who—matters to them. So try and frame physical activity and healthier habits around food, drinking, and exercise in ways that appeal to their values, Rothman says.
3. Get real.
But scare tactics might not hurt. Studies show that the more we perceive our behavior as detrimental to our health, the more likely we are to want to change. Remind your pack-a-day friend that quitting will seriously lower their risk of heart disease and cancer—no small feat. If your partner wants to cut back on booze, maybe suggest taking a look at a first-person article like this one or this one about the life-changing effects it had for someone else. Telling your parents about all the surprising mental health benefits of exercise may encourage them to start a walking routine.
4. Team up.
Everything's better (and easier to keep up) with a friend. Offer to join your pal on their healthy eating quest by trying a new vegan restaurant together. Or make a date with your S.O. to catch a spin class, go for a run, or try yoga together, instead of your usual pizza-and-movie routine on Friday night.
Not only does having a buddy to exercise with make us more likely to enjoy it, but if we know someone’s waiting for us, Rothman says, we’re more likely to show up (since we’d feel guilty if we let someone else down).
Another pro tip: Do your best to avoid using should and other moralistic statements, says Rothman, as these will just make them feel worse. Instead of saying, You should really get to the gym more, try You’ve mentioned you’ve been feeling fatigued lately. If you want ,we could go for a run between classes/after work. That always helps wake me up. Or invite them to the gym as your guest to show them some exercises for their stiff back.
5. Take shame off the table.
Making someone feel bad for failing in any effort to make healthier choices (e.g., lose weight, stop drinking as much, or quit smoking) is the worst course of action if you really want to help. Fat shaming, for instance, has been shown to make people pack on more pounds, not less. And weight stigma bodes horrendously for someone’s psychological and physical health, driving them to avoid exercise and reach for even more comfort foods.
When it comes to smoking, criticism tends to heap tension and stress on the smoker, who needs support if he or she is truly trying to quit. So if you feel the urge to tell a friend, neighbor, date, or family member (heck, even a colleague) smoking disgusts you, just know you’re driving them to light up even more. Instead, stick to the facts and its impact on you—like, “Hey, the smell of smoke in the house/car/office is really making me nauseous.” The latter, Rothman explains, opens the door for constructive problem solving.
6. Give out gold stars.
Most of us love compliments. Hence why they can be a great means of reinforcing healthy choices your friend or loved one has made. (Think: Wow, congrats! I can really see a difference in your posture/energy since you’ve been working out.)
One caveat: Be mindful not to focus too heavily on someone’s appearance when giving them praise for picking up a healthier habit, cautions Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., author of The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are. In doing so, you might make someone feel awesome at the outset, but you could end up heightening their self-consciousness and piling on pressure to meet a beauty standard they feel is beyond their reach.
And in the long run, this can make them feel worse and actually decrease their commitment to whatever healthy change they’ve made. Studies show hitting the gym to look hotter not only lowers our body satisfaction, it also guts the pleasure out of picking up healthier habits like exercise. And if we don’t enjoy something, we likely won’t stick with it.
A safer bet: Simply acknowledge someone else’s efforts: I know that changing a habit can be extremely challenging. I’m seriously proud of you and inspired myself! You’re kicking a**! Keep up the good work. (Just be sure to keep it genuine.)
Keep in mind: Going overboard on trying to make someone eat better, work out more, or alter their lifestyle in some other way may actually backfire, making people less likely to change and even impairing your relationships. Do your best to encourage, join in, and reward healthier habits your friends and loved ones are trying out. But be prepared to accept their preferences—or limitations—as needed.