Most people want to be healthy, but many just feel they don’t have the time or energy to do the right thing. This is where ‘nudge’ theory may be able to help us out.
Recent research from Aegon identified a clear correlation between a healthy lifestyle and both the ability to continue working for as long as desired and a comfortable retirement. In order to achieve this, we need to stimulate and adopt healthy and active habits.
Making it easy to do the right thing
The idea of 'nudging' people into behaving in a certain way is nothing new. Supermarkets have long taken advantage of the fact that children (and adults) will be tempted to buy themselves a sweet treat at the end of a shopping trip if there is a helpfully situated display of sugary delights at the checkout counter.
However, about a decade ago, 'nudge' theory became a popular field of research in behavioral psychology. Researchers – and governments – realized that the same concept of deliberately managing availability and choice used to encourage consumers to consume more chocolates could also be used to 'nudge' people in other ways.
For example, into making decisions that were good for them over the long term, like giving up smoking or saving for their retirement. By removing cigarettes from display or by making it mandatory for everyone to be offered a pension by default, people can be encouraged to make the right decisions. Nudging behavior is about creating an architecture of choice that makes it easier to make the right choices.
Creating the right environment
In 2015, David van Bodegom, a doctor and researcher at the Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing, co-published a book - Oud worden in de Praktijk - on the influence of the environment on aging. In their research, they studied two large groups of older people, one in the Netherlands and one in rural Ghana. Despite the fact that the Dutch population group had better access to healthcare and advanced medicine, the Ghanaian population group was significantly healthier and fitter.
"Complaints associated with old age, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or joint problems, are to a large degree influenced by lifestyle," said Dr van Bodegom. "A few generations ago, people in the Netherlands and Ghana lived in similar environments, where physical activity was a part of daily life, and food was scarcer."
Times have changed: labor-saving devices (like cars, washing machines and escalators) have reduced our need to take physical activity, and, at the same time, it has never been easier to purchase calorie-rich foods and drinks. "We are trapped in bodies that have evolved to take in as many calories as we can and waste as few as possible," said David, "and because we cannot change our genetic makeup, we need to change our environment."
Nudging ourselves back to health
We can't all return to working the land, but there are some simple, small steps that everyone can take to improve their health over the long term. Small changes to how we behave now can have long-term benefits for how we age. For example, eating from smaller plates 'nudges' us into consuming fewer calories without even realizing it. Making a shopping list before going to the supermarket helps prevent impulsive (and unhealthy) purchases (since as much as 60 percent of our grocery shopping comprises unplanned purchases).
Other simple steps that can be taken at work are to look at whether meetings can be held standing or even walking, to walk to a colleague's desk instead of sending an e-mail, to cycle to work, and to replace sugary snacks with fruit or vegetables.
Building the architecture for a healthy workforce
Although there is much that we as individuals can do to take the small steps towards a healthier old age, employers can also play an important role in creating the right environment for workplace wellness.
To gain more insight into what companies can do to help their employees, the non-profit Transamerica Center for Health Studies partnered with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to publish From Evidence to Practice: Work-place Wellness that Works. The report provides a series of actionable steps to help employers to design and implement workplace wellness programs.
Take the first step towards a healthier future
If you want to find out more about what you can do personally to help create the right environment and cultivate the right habits for a healthy old age, you can sign up to follow a free online course presented by Dr van Bodegom: Healthy Ageing in 6 Steps.
Available on the online learning platform edX, the course was developed by partners of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Health Campus. These included the Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing which was established by the Aegon Association in 2008, the University of Copenhagen and TU Delft in the Netherlands.