At Active Living By Design (ALBD), our vision is that all communities are healthy communities where routine physical activity and healthy eating are accessible, easy and affordable to everyone. In my efforts to “walk the talk” and practice the vision of ALBD, I’ve thought about the meaning of the word “routine” and how the varying environments in which I live, work and play influence my decisions and behaviors each day.
Our healthy communities work is based on the recognition that it is difficult, if not impossible, to adopt new routines and sustain them without re-engineering environments. We’ve seen how making healthy food and activity options accessible and convenient can transform communities. When ALBD began working with community partnerships to integrate Healthy Eating by Design (HEbD) into their active living work, I recall some savvy community leaders asking, “What are we going to do to address the home environment?” These leaders recognized that, while we were changing environments and policies in communities by making healthy foods and beverages more affordable and accessible, people needed further supports to help them adopt healthy ways of eating at home.
It wasn’t a matter of lack of knowledge or skill, but a recognition that people with significant competing priorities would be more likely to engage in healthy eating by minimizing the amount of associated effort or stress. In any community, and perhaps particularly those experiencing disparities or inequities, making the healthy choice the easy choice seems like a wise approach in both community and home settings.
Brian Wansink is an expert in eating behavior, and a professor at Cornell University where he directs the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Based on hundreds of food studies, Dr. Wansink developed the concept of “mindless eating.” Mindless eating does not suggest that individuals are uneducated, unaware, powerless or free from choice. Rather, it builds upon our preference to live and function in ways that are uncomplicated and rewarding. The approach includes evidence-based strategies to re-engineer our home environments to work for us rather than against us. These concepts are similar in the approach we take to achieving sustainable healthy communities changes, and help bridge to the home environments that make up our communities.
Examples of “mindless eating” strategies for home settings apply similar methods to those we support in community environments, such as accessible grocery store siting and placement of healthy food and beverage items in the most noticeable and reachable sections of a store. Similarly, people are more likely to engage in healthy eating at home if healthy items are stored in visible, easy-to-reach areas like on countertops or at eye-level in the cupboard, and less healthy foods are kept on high cupboard shelves or in the freezer.
One of Wansink’s studies revealed that people ate 20 percent less food when serving dishes are in the kitchen rather than on the dining table. In another study, people consumed 100 more calories when a candy dish was placed on their desk versus six feet away. Just as we’ve seen in our community-based work, the effort required to engage in a behavior influences the human desire to make the easier choice.
While Wansink’s work focuses on healthy eating, his strategies for the home environment can also be applied to active living and complement our efforts to support healthy community environments for comprehensive impact. I’ve been adopting these strategies in my effort to routinely access and engage in active living environments in my community. I keep my running shoes at the front door rather than at the back of my closet, map out multiple destinations where I can run safely, and do not fully fill my car gas tank so that I’m more likely to walk to complete errands at the post office or store.
I’ve been active on a daily basis for a while now and find myself spending less time and effort thinking about it because of the supports in both my community and home environments. In other words, it has become routine. As we all work to improve healthy communities across the nation, it’s encouraging to see how these concepts can fit together in all settings, both at home and in our neighborhoods.