Cognitive Dimensions of Healthy Lifestyle Habits for Seniors

Written by: Richard Houston. Posted: April 04, 2014. 


Most seniors understand that active lifestyle habits have a significant influence on the quality of life in later decades. Chronic diseases of the neurological, cardio-vascular and endocrine systems can often be delayed or potentially avoided altogether by consistent exercise routines and healthy eating habits throughout adult years. However, many seniors fall short of their own personal fitness goals. Cognitive factors related to the discrepancy between active lifestyle goals and actual behaviors are analyzed in this review.

Survey shows desire to improve fitness but poor execution

Health Alliance Partners / PeopleAssets recently conducted surveys in the San Francisco Bay Area on a range of ‘Active Lifestyle’ issues. Sixteen hundred area residents responded to the surveys. More than 700 respondents were over 50 and 250 respondents were over age 60. The results reveal important insights about psychological factors related to regular exercise habits.

·         A majority of senior respondents were ‘less than pleased’ with their current fitness status.

·         A resounding 88% of that group wants to improve their fitness.

·         Yet 55% of respondents who indicate that they are not pleased with their fitness status don’t exercise on a regular basis.

There are, apparently, factors that obstruct the translation of positive intentions into actual behaviors that define active lifestyle habits. Understanding the nature of those obstructions and how to clear a path forward merits close attention.

People lack a specific plan

Every January people line up and make activity plans to start the New Year off right. However, many of those plans seem to fade into the fog by March. The ephemeral nature of New Year’s activity resolutions may have something to do with the nature of the plan and / or its implementation.

Two important factors deserve attention: the ‘payout term’ of the plan and the visibility of results are both important features. In many cases, people define plans that involve goals with visible outcomes expected in a short term time frame.

“I’m going to lose ten pounds this month and all my friends and co-workers will notice.”

People are innately geared toward quick results that are readily observed. However, the most compelling benefits from regular exercise take a long time to accrue and are not visible. Exercise habits have a decisive positive impact on cardio-vascular systems, brain health, endocrine function and immunological systems. Benefits are demonstrated by health and vitality factors in later decades but do not necessarily provide visible progress markers in the short term. When health benefits are hard to see and the payoff comes primarily in the long term, they somehow seem much less compelling.

Need data on risks and benefits

Data from our survey provide support for the hypothesis that more specific information about health risks and benefits may be required to drive behavior change. Of the seniors who say they ‘want to improve their current fitness condition,’ nearly 80% said that they would be more active if they had specific information about the impact of exercise on particular health outcomes. These data suggest that generalizations and vague correlations between activity and health may fall short of actually getting people to modify lifestyle habits.

Would you do more



Need way to limit discouragement

The infamous drop off rate for New Year’s activity resolutions points to another issue related to how people think about active lifestyle habits. Of the over 50 crowd who don’t exercise regularly, more than 3 out of 4 admit to getting discouraged when they don’t meet their goals. The same proportion of respondents admit to a tendency to give up when they experience frustration with efforts to improve their fitness status. Apparently, difficulty achieving fitness goals and frustration with the lack of visible progress lead people to abandon the plans they made to change their sedentary ways. What can be done?

Is self coaching the answer?

Research results on cognitive, ‘self-coaching’ habits have persuasively shown that the way someone interprets an event can have a tangible impact on their future behavior as well as on their emotional experience. An individual may set out to exercise 4 or 5 days a week and eat healthy foods more frequently. Things go well for two or three weeks and then the plan derails. Perhaps weather obstructs an exercise outing. A friend calls and wants to grab a “Double, Double.” Is the new strategy out the window?

In one instance, Person A says to himself “I’m just not cut out for a lean, green diet. It’s boring and bland. Furthermore, pedaling a stationary bike for 40 minutes is a grind. I don’t need the humiliation of working out next to someone with 2% body fat. I’ll try to get out more when I have the time.” In contrast Person B says, “I enjoyed the feeling of getting out and moving. I missed it this week and want to get back into a regular routine. The more I exercise, the more stamina I have. It was fun to hang with Stan and grab a burger but I want to limit the number of times I do that and find some new ways to cook healthy. I might sign up for that night class that I saw advertised.” Two different interpretations; two contrasting outcomes. The ability to weather setbacks and get back on the right track can be crucial. This is a product of cognitive skills and old-fashioned determination or what some behavioral science researchers are referring to recently as “grit.“ Grit involves the resilience and perseverance to weather setbacks, keep goals in focus and doggedly pursue priority goals.

Solutions are not simple and don’t come neatly wrapped. Many different psychological components to lifestyle habit changes have to be considered. Goal setting itself can be an art form. Social networking groups can play a major role in motivational incentives. The ability to delay gratification may be an essential factor. Perhaps one of the most important insights to embrace when considering cognitive components of active lifestyle habits is that cognitive skills absolutely require dedicated practice. Insight and recognition are important but not sufficient. Just like learning to hit a tennis backhand or play the piano, mastering the cognitive techniques to sustain active lifestyle habits requires lots of practice.

Two powerful contextual forces need to be acknowledged when considering the development of new, active lifestyle habits.  

  1. Habits, both good and bad, are largely automatic in nature. They operate on a different circuit than conscious deliberation. That makes habitual action easy to do, but also makes established habits resistant to change. 
  2. Contemporary western culture floods us with messages about immediate gratification often in the form of tasty fast food treats. Agri-business marketing campaigns seem to control the media advertising space. The flood of advertising extols the gratification from a trip to grab some fries, a burger and a Coke or purchase a pre-cooked meal loaded with salt and sugars. These messages are pervasive and they are reinforced with the power of celebrity models – especially influential for children. If LeBron does it, then it must be good. Established habits, a fast-food culture and ubiquitous electronic screens often make changes to modern lifestyles extremely difficult.


Many people who want to improve their fitness status get discouraged and tend to give up on efforts to be more active. A compelling body of research suggests that training individuals in specific self-coaching techniques can make a tangible difference in their behavior. Additional components of a support system include specific information on the health benefits of regular exercise and support for defining a realistic and practical fitness plan. Joining a social network can make a big difference. Details of research on brain health may also be a valuable component of a health education system.



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Last Updated: May 13, 2020.

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