Public health campaigns miss important points.

The Missing Point in Every Public Health Program

The public health industry is getting more creative in its efforts to fight bad lifestyle decisions.

Why Don’t Public Health Campaigns Work As Intended?

They’re always marching against some societal malfeasance, and it’s interesting to see how the tactics used are evolving as the problem continues to move in one direction.

The first method was to use whitewashed outreach campaigns that focused on basic education. It didn’t work. We all know we ought to eat 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables everyday. Actually doing it is something else entirely.

Then came the “nudge” movement. Its focus was to create changes in people’s choice environments that steered people to unconsciously make the right decisions. Putting the apples in front of the dessert in a cafeteria, green lights over the sald bar and red lights over the egg rolls, calorie counts next to menu items at fast-food restaurants, etc.

The result so far has been that these interventions have a modest effect in the short run, but tend to fade away in the long run as people learn to overcome the nudges with repeated exposure.

The newest tactic? Shame. 

Georgia’s Strong4Life Campaign

Feed me I’m Cranky has an interesting article about a new public health outreach program in Georgia targeting childhood obesity. It uses grotesque pictures of overweight children to drive home a message to lackidasaical parents:

Public health programs using shame as motivational tactic

I have no idea how something like this will perform compared to previous measures. And I honestly don’t have well developed opinions about the morality of using embarrassment as a motivational tactic.

Why These Programs Don’t Work

But I think all of these measures miss an important point: healthy living is a skill. More than an act of will, a set of values, or an exercise in vanity, living and being healthy is a learned behavior that takes several years to perfect.

You generally need the following:

1). The cooking skills to prepare 5-7 healthy dishes quickly.

2). The ability to plan your schedule so that you have enough time to prepare food and exercise on a regular basis.

3). A well developed hobby that can double as physical exercise so that you won’t get sick of it.

4). A general understanding of what foods are good for you, and which ones aren’t. (You don’t need an extensive education on the ins and outs of nutrition science, just a rough classification system that gets it right most of the time).

5). A self-awareness of your own weak points, so you can detect bad situations before they happen.

Each of these points isn’t too difficult on its own, but getting the hang of them and folding them into your lifestyle so they become a habit can take a while, and requires a little bit of practice.

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