Are we creatures of habit? Persistence and change in adult health behaviours in England

Publication type

Conference Paper


Hilary Graham and Heather Wardle

Publication date


People’s lifestyles play a central role in the chronic diseases that cause the majority of premature deaths in the UK. Four lifestyle factors – cigarette smoking, high alcohol intake, low fruit and vegetable (F&V) consumption and physical inactivity – are a particular focus of public health policy. The advice is not to smoke, to achieve the minimum recommended levels of physical activity and F&V intake and not to binge drink (not to drink more than twice the recommended daily limit).
The evidence on these lifestyle factors comes primarily from cross-sectional surveys of adults. They confirm that a minority are smokers and binge drinkers and the majority do not meet minimum recommendations for physical activity and F&V intake. Much less is known about patterns of health behaviour over time. Understanding Society is helping to fill this gap: participants were asked about health behaviours in both 2010/11 and in 2013/14. Drawing on analyses of these data, our plenary will discuss persistence and change in the lifestyle risk factors that UK public health policy is seeking to change.
Understanding Society confirms that the four risk factors are socially patterned. Social disadvantage is associated with three of these behaviours, with binge drinking showing the reverse social gradient. Understanding Society also indicates that people’s lifestyles are resistant to change. Persistence is the norm: the majority of those who smoked, binge drank and did not meet recommendations for diet and physical activity in 2010/11 report the same behaviours three years later. However, beneath this broad picture is a more dynamic pattern. We will take particular examples to illustrate how and for whom behaviour changes, and conclude by noting the importance of tracking people’s health behaviours over time.


Public Policy, Health, Life Course Analysis and Surveys