As the Obama administration tackles the national obesity epidemic, a new American Psychological Association poll shows that individuals need ongoing support to make lifestyle and behavior changes.

According to a March 2010 APA poll conducted by Harris Interactive, fewer than one in five adults (16 percent) report being very successful at making health-related improvements such as losing weight (20 percent), starting a regular exercise program (15 percent), eating a healthier diet (10 percent), and reducing stress (7 percent)1 so far this year, although about nine in 10 adults (88 percent) who resolved to make a health-related change say they have been at least somewhat successful at achieving it since January. Despite these efforts, about three-quarters (78 percent) of those who made a health-related resolution say significant obstacles block them from making progress, such as willpower (33 percent), making changes alone (24 percent), and experiencing too much stress (20 percent).

“Lasting lifestyle and behavior changes don’t happen overnight. Willpower is a learned skill, not an inherent trait. We all have the capacity to develop skills to make changes last,” said Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, executive director for professional practice at APA. “It is important to break down seemingly unattainable goals into manageable portions.”

Psychologists with APA report that, with the right support, individuals can learn how to make lasting lifestyle and behavior changes, regardless of the importance they place on willpower or the influence of stress. “Is it will or is it skill?” asks health psychologist and past president of APA’s Division of Health Psychology Karina Davidson. “The reality is that, with the right guidance, people can build and strengthen the skills they need to make even the toughest lifestyle changes,” she said.

APA recommends talking about lifestyle and behavior goals with friends, family, or a professional, such as a psychologist, who can help navigate feelings and gain skills to successfully change behavior. With help, individuals can develop willpower and stay on track with their health-centered goals.

For additional resources on making lasting lifestyle and behavior changes read the campaign blog Your Mind Your Body or follow @apahelpcenter on Twitter.

1 The full list of health related-resolutions also includes stopping smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, and getting more sleep on a regular basis.