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Health benefits Utahns perceive as important often don't translate into healthy behaviors, says BYU study

Utahns who identify exercise and good diet as important to health are often not adopting the very practices they know to be healthy, according to a Brigham Young University study.

Information gathered from 717 Utahns also showed that men who recognize the importance of diet and physical activity are significantly more likely to eat right and exercise than women who responded similarly.

The findings, published in the new issue of the academic journal "Health Promotion Practice," can be useful in developing appropriate age- and gender-specific health education programs.

"Successful programs need to go beyond providing information that motivates a general perception of health behavior," says Ray M. Merrill, associate professor of health science and study author. "Instead, programs should identify the level of motivation people have about adopting healthy practices and try to influence them based on that information."

The study relied on the results of a survey on health perceptions and behavior conducted by the Utah Department of Health. These results were compared with answers to a supplemental question to that survey designed by Utah's Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention and Control - "What are the most important things people like you should do to stay healthy?"

Exercising regularly (82.3 percent) and maintaining a healthy diet (70.6 percent) were the most frequent responses. Avoiding cigarettes (9.4 percent) and excess alcohol intake (3.3 percent), managing stress (6.7 percent), maintaining ideal body weight (4.9 percent) and seeing a doctor regularly (2.9 percent) were also listed as important to good health.

According to the study, of the 82 percent who said that exercising regularly is important, only 31 percent actually exercise regularly. Additionally, of the 71 percent who said that a healthy diet was important, only 21 percent ate five or more fruits or vegetables a day.

"The fact that a high percentage of people said exercise and diet are important didn't translate into a high percentage of people doing these things," says Merrill. "In contrast, very few people mentioned maintaining an ideal weight and seeing a doctor regularly as important to good health, yet a high percentage did these things."

Some factors that may be viewed as important but not sufficient to motivate a person to change behavior include: perceived susceptibility to illness, consequences or seriousness of illness and belief that recommended action will reduce health risks.

"For example, skin cancer is a disease that typically affects people later in life, but its primary cause is acute sun exposure during youth," says Merrill. "But that understanding often doesn't cause kids to use sunscreen or avoid sunburns."

Joining Merrill in the study were Michael Friedrichs and LaDene Larsen, a statistician and a director of health promotion for the Utah Department of Health, respectively.

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