Navigation

Earth Day: make changes to support the planet and your health

Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK
21 April 2021

This is the first in a series of articles that will look at what we can do to improve our own health and the planet’s. Here, I share 10 tips to get you started on the road to making healthy and environmentally-friendly behaviour changes that last.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Write an action plan to achieve your goals. Active travel like cycling is a great way to look after your health and reduced 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 years’ 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.

Lauren Gordon
Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK

    • Daszak P, Das Neves, et al. Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Pandemics of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. IPBES (2020). doi:10.5281/zenodo.4147317
    • Whitmee S, Haines A, et al. Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health. The Lancet 2015; 386(10007): 1973–2028. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60901-1
    • Hamilton I, Kennard H, et al. The public health implications of the Paris Agreement: a modelling study. The Lancet Planetary Health 2021; 5(2): e74–83. doi: 10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30249-7
    • Haines, A, Ebi K. The imperative for climate action to protect health. New England Journal of Medicine 2019; 380(3): 263-273. doi: 10.1056/NEJMra1807873
    • Co-benefits of climate change mitigation in the UK: What issues are the UK public concerned about and how can action on climate change help to address them? Imperial College London. www.imperial.ac.uk, accessed April 2021
    • Sustaining sustainability: lessons from the psychology of habits. OSF. osf.io, accessed April 2021
    • Shu L, Bazerman M. Cognitive barriers to environmental action: Problems and solutions. Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper 2010; (11-046). doi: 10.2139/ssrn.1701640
    • Gifford R, Lacroix K, Chen A. Understanding responses to climate change: Psychological barriers to mitigation and a new theory of behavioral choice. Psychology and Climate Change 2018; 161–83. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-813130-5.00006-0
    • Dalton AN, Spiller SA. Too much of a good thing: The benefits of implementation intentions depend on the number of goals. Journal of Consumer Research 2012; 39(3): 600–14. doi: 10.1086/664500
    • Lanzini P, Thøgersen J. Behavioural spillover in the environmental domain: an intervention study. Journal of Environmental Psychology 2014; 40: 381–90. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2014.09.006
    • Wiedemann A et al. How planning facilitates behaviour change: Additive and interactive effects of a randomized controlled trial. European Journal of Social Psychology 2011; 41(1): 42–5. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.724
    • Rogers T, Milkman KL, Volpp KG. Commitment devices: using initiatives to change behavior. Jama Network 2014; 311(20): 2065–66. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.3485
    • Whitmarsh L, O'Neill S. Green identity, green living? The role of pro-environmental self-identity in determining consistency across diverse pro-environmental behaviours. Journal of Environmental Psychology 2010; 30(3): 305–14. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.01.003
    • Rogers T, Goldstein NJ, Fox CR. Social mobilization. Annual Review of Psychology 2018; 69: 357–81. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033718
    • Otto IM et al. Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2020; 117(5): 2354–65. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1900577117
    • Reynolds L. The sum of the parts: Can we really reduce carbon emissions through individual behaviour change? Perspectives in Public Health 2010; 130(1): 41–6. doi: 10.1177%2F1757913909354150
    • Climate change needs behavior change: Making the case for behavioral solutions to reduce global warming. Center for behaviour and the environment. rare.org, published 2018
    • Capstick S, Khosla R. Wang S. Bridging the gap – the role of equitable low-carbon lifestyles. Emissions Gap Report 2020: Chapter 6, 62–75
    • Changing our ways? Behaviour change and the climate crisis. The report of the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on scaling behaviour change. Rapid Transition Alliance. rapidtransition.org, published April 2021

Did you find our advice helpful?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our healthy lifestyle articles.

ajax-loader