Understanding barriers – the key to behaviour change

12 August 2016

Sarah Toule, Head of Health InformationSarah is World Cancer Research Fund's Head of Health Information

Whether we work in health or not, we’re all aware of the familiar list of excuses that people give for why they struggle to be healthier – and often catch ourselves using them too!

At World Cancer Research Fund UK, we recognise that giving people information is only half the battle when it comes to behaviour change. However, there are some key themes – and key differences – across the different behaviours, and being aware of these can make all the difference when turning awareness into action.

Barriers to losing weight

Personal beliefs can strongly affect motivation for losing weight. Whether it is low self-esteem, the belief that past weight gain is irreversible, or a fear of the perceived commitment needed to lose weight, a range of destructive beliefs exist which can lead to weight loss being thought of as unachievable.

Woman chopping vegetables
© World Obesity

It’s therefore important to break down targets into more realistic milestones and to provide ongoing support and motivation within the person’s immediate environment to keep them on track.

Barriers to being more active

Again, lack of motivation is common, but the practical barriers to doing physical activity are crucial, such as cost, lack of accessible facilities and, most importantly, lack of time.

People on exercise bikes

Making people aware of the benefits of being active is useful for increasing motivation, but finding ways to incorporate physical activity into everyday life is key, such as explaining how activity can be broken down into shorter bursts over the course of a day.

Barriers to drinking less alcohol

The fact that drinking alcohol is considered a normal part of social life poses a major barrier to behaviour change – fear of ‘missing out on the fun’ is a common reason for continuing to drink.  A wider cultural shift is needed to ‘de-normalise’ social and excessive drinking but, until that happens, we can help people reduce consumption by providing tips on how to drink in a safer way.

People drinking alcohol at a dinner party

It is worrying that many social and personal problems, such as boredom, depression, stress and low self-esteem, are also common causes of drinking. To combat these, it is important to raise awareness of the health risks of drinking and provide alternative coping strategies, such as exercise.

Barriers to eating less salt

Rather than unwillingness, the most common barrier to reducing salt intake is a lack of awareness of the amount of salt hidden in foods and of the health risks associated with eating too much of it.

Salt shaker with salt spilled on table

To overcome this, better education – including teaching people how to read labels and how to cook using less salt – is vital, alongside continued reformulation efforts by the food industry itself.

These trends give those of us working in public health some insight into the possible barriers to behaviour change, and can help us support others to be healthier. They also show how important it is to spend time uncovering the personal, environmental or social factors that are affecting an individual’s willingness to take action.


Discussing common barriers to behaviour change and ways to overcome them are core elements in our cancer prevention workshops. Find out more about our next workshop for health professionals, taking place in Liverpool on 1st December 2016.

Sarah Toule | 12 August 2016

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