Behavior Change: A Central Topic at Health 2.0

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The afternoon of Day 1 of the Health 2.0 Conference was highlighted by the session, "The Patient is In".  First up, a video that documented the experiences of a group of people that recently started using patient health tools, such as online health journals that track diet or exercise, support sites for quitting smoking, or home blood test kits.

Following the video, a few of the participants were joined onstage by technology pioneer Esther Dyson.  Some panelists said that while they exercised a bit more and ate somewhat better during the course of the experiment, soon after they returned to their old (bad) habits.  Others were completely sold on the idea of self-tracking, and one particular panelist said that his daily running and mile-logging inspired his daughter and her friend to do the same.  Likewise, his neighbor, having noticed him trotting around the neighborhood several times a week, started his own walking regiment.  In the panelist's words, "People draw energy from supportive environments".

Social contagion, the idea that behavior change can be contagious, has been gaining ground.  A few months ago, I experienced the power of social contagion for myself: as many readers know, I'm a long-time runner.  But no matter how many miles I logged per week, my wife never really understood why I was out on the road, tormenting myself for hours.  It wasn't until she bought a Nike+ sensor, and her boss challenged her to a "See Who Can Run More Miles in a Month" challenge that she became hooked on running.  Now I have to spy on her website running log to make sure I still run more miles per week (yes, I'm competitive too).

Some people are inspired to change their behaviors by logging how many calories they're consuming every day.  Others are motivated by seeing friends or family stop smoking.  And for some, it takes someone else to throw down the gauntlet, and say, "I bet I can kick your butt in a race around the track" for the change to occur.

Esther Dyson concluded the session by saying that we can also drive behavior changes by associating the things we just don't like to do with small "rewards".  Personally, she rewarded the monotony of flossing with a 5-minute reprieve from her intense exercise routine.  So on days she flossed, instead of swimming for an hour, she could quit after 55 minutes.

Social contagion and little rewards go a long way in keeping people focused and motivated, and I was glad to see these ideas brought up at today's conference.