The environment and our health
The pandemic has shone a light on the close link between the environment and our health. Increasing evidence suggests that as the planet’s health is affected by human activities and climate change, so is our physical and mental health.
The good news is that we can each take positive steps to reduce our impact on the environment, while improving our health and wellbeing. Whether that’s active travel, such as cycling instead of driving, or eating more sustainably.
Why do I find it hard to make environmentally friendly changes to my behaviour?
Let’s start by exploring why some of us struggle to change our habits. We know what we should be doing, but when it comes to action, we can often fall short. This is a phenomenon known as the ‘intention-action’ gap – despite our best intentions to do the right thing, we fail in the moment.
We much prefer to stick with the status quo and often fall back on our existing habits, or what is easiest. For example, we continue driving somewhere local, even though we know that walking is better for us and the environment.
Another challenge we face is that our brains are wired to prioritise the immediate rewards or costs of our actions, not future ones. This means that when we’re making choices which are environmentally-friendly and healthy, it can feel that we’re having to make a sacrifice. For example, you may buy exotic fruit and vegetables that fit in with your dinner plans, rather than ones that are in season and local.
When we think about climate change and damage to the environment, it also seems vast, distant and abstract. This means it doesn’t always stay front of mind, unless we’re directly faced with the effects it has on our day-to-day health. And if we don’t feel personally impacted, we might not change our actions.
What can I do to make my new habits stick?
Here are 10 evidence-based tips to help you turn your environmentally friendly and healthy intentions into action.
- Change one thing at a time. It can be tempting to want to make lots of changes, all at once, especially when it comes to such an important issue. However, research shows that people who change one thing at a time are more likely to be successful. Need some ideas? Imperial College London has created a list of nine things you can do about climate change.
- Start small. This will help you to get your foot in the door. Try adapting one of your regular ‘go-to’ meals using seasonal vegetables or make it plant-based using lentils and pulses. You could use a protein substitute such as tofu or mycoprotein (Quorn). You’ll be making a difference, and it will motivate you to make other healthy changes. There are lots of plant-based recipe ideas that you can try.
- Write an action plan to achieve your goals. Active travel like cycling is a great way to look after your health and reduce emissions. Setting an action plan means you’re more likely to achieve this change. Think about what time you’d need to leave the house, what you’d wear, the route you’d take and where you’d lock up your bike.
- Choose changes that you feel motivated by. If you want to eat more sustainably, but following a vegan or vegetarian diet feels unachievable, you probably won’t stick at it for long. Instead, you could try one meat-free day a week, and when you’ve got the hang of it, increase that to two days, and so on. Or perhaps you want to start with a vegan breakfast and lunch each day. It doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing’ when it comes to making change.
- Make a public commitment to keep yourself accountable. One way to stay accountable to your behaviour change goals is to make a public commitment or sign a pledge. For example, tell your family, housemates or friends about them. They’ll want to hear about your progress and will help you keep on track.
- Think of yourself as an environmentally friendly person. We like to behave in line with how we think about ourselves. Thinking of ourselves as someone who is environmentally friendly increases the likelihood that we’ll behave in line with that identity.
- Monitor your progress. Use a carbon tracker tool to see the personal impact you’re making through your healthy changes. By choosing to walk rather than drive, you’ll see in real time how much carbon you’ve avoided emitting.
- Have self-compassion. Behaviour change is hard, but it’s important not to give up at the first hurdle. There will be times when you slip up - that’s normal. Acknowledge it but try not to dwell on it; instead reflect on how you could learn for next time.
- Share your successes. Tell others of your wins as this might encourage them to make small changes in their own lives. The more people who take action to improve their health and the planet’s health, the better.
- Make it social. Being part of a community is a great way to find out about local initiatives you can support to make a difference. Why not do something to celebrate Earth Day? This year’s theme is to explore the different ways we can play our part in helping to repair and restore our planet. Look for #OneHealth too. One Health is an approach the World Health Organization and others are taking. One Health is about recognising that our health, and the health of animals, plants and the planet are all interconnected.
By taking steps to make small changes, we can positively impact our health, and the health of those around us. Taking action in our own lives will also help to support our planet’s health, both now and in the future.