Want to stay healthy? Change your environment!

The rising prevalence of lifestyle-related diseases poses a huge challenge to the healthcare system. Non-communicable diseases related to health behaviours – such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes – account for more than 60% of worldwide deaths. Current healthcare systems were not designed to efficiently manage diseases such as diabetes; so how do you begin to tackle the problem?

Promoting healthy behaviours

According to Professor Semiha Denktas, Head of Social Behaviour & Sciences at Erasmus University College, the answer lies in using scientific insights to promote healthy behaviours. As Denktas will explain in her inaugural speech this Friday, 17 March, more research is needed to combat the epidemic of lifestyle-related disease.

Denktas has been researching the positive effects of ‘nudging’: adjusting the environment to enable people to make healthy decisions. Nudging is based on the premise of indirect encouragement, rather than direct instruction or reinforcement. She explains:

‘Ninety-five percent of the behaviour that people exhibit is automatic; only five percent is conscious behaviour, where people reflect or think about it. For a long time we had the idea that if people knew that they could get lung cancer from smoking, they would quit smoking. That doesn't work. So we need more than ever to make it easier for people to make healthy choices.’

A nudge in the right direction

Denktas sees opportunities in various fields for nudging projects. One of the most famous examples of nudging is the effect of ‘piano stairs’, in which the stairs at a subway station were turned into a giant piano. The video – which has had more than 22 million views on YouTube – shows that many more people chose to take the stairs instead of the escalator when it became a fun (and musical!) activity.

If you change the environment, you prime people to make different decisions. ‘Creating an environment in which healthy choices are more obvious, without banning unhealthy choices is the essence,’ Denktas says.

There is a general consensus in literature and among many policy-makers that these ecological programmes are desirable. But at the same time, there is little guidance for health professionals and policy-makers who actually want to implement them. The Rotterdam Center for Health Promotion aims to design and evaluate these types of programmes in collaboration with the target populations, health professions, and policy-makers, and to provide education and guidance in the implementation process.


Text: Manon Sikkel Daelmans

More information

Professor Semiha Denktas was born in Istanbul, Turkey, and has been living in the Netherlands since the age of seven.

Check out her TEDx talk: Going with the grain for better health.

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