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Sticking to healthy changes with Samantha Harden

Samantha Harden joined Virginia Tech’s “Curious Conversations” to chat about the science behind developing and keeping healthy habits. 

About Harden

Harden is an associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech and director of the Physical Activity Research and Community Implementation Laboratory, as well as an exercise specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension. Her research focuses on the yoga kernels of mindfulness, breath work, and movement and how yoga can promote flourishing (personal, professional, and communal well being) and longevity (healthy aging).   

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Travis Williams (01:01.781)

Well, I was reading earlier today and I kinda thought maybe I'd start this off. I'm really curious, what do you maybe not like so much about the idea of New Year's resolutions?

Samantha Harden (01:18.698)

Yeah, so I am a person living in a female body, but I am also very masculine in terms of my resolve and my aggression and my desire to get things done. And I think that that's where the term resolution was really brought out of. But as I've started to embrace more of the sacred, feminine, divine, finding out the rich history of setting New Year's intentions.

In many different cultures that embraced kind of opening up to the new year, being in flow, really acknowledging what we're already doing well and letting go of what we don't want to bring into the new season has a very different texture and flavor than to resolve to be better or different or do something that you're not already doing. So to me, just looking at the language and how it lands is kind of the first step.

Is to kind of let go of the New Year's resolutions and instead think about your New Year's intention. How do you want to align with your most authentic self? When you think about who you wanna be and really values aligned, what are the behaviors and patterns and environment that you're in that help you feel like your best self so that you can give from the overflow? So it's not just a self-centered component, it really is like.

How do you fill up from within so that you can give to others? And I think the New Year's resolution is often, how can you be more productive at your job? Or how can you earn or make or do? And I would rather think about how can you just be?

Travis Williams (02:56.617)

Wow, that's, that's what I've never really kind of, I've never really thought about it. Uh, and that way I think I generally kind of do get in the thinking habit of like, what do I either want to start or stop in the next year?

Samantha Harden (03:07.774)

Yeah, and I would say that's most people and that's how we kind of set ourselves up for failure because we're We're looking at you know, december 30th to january 2nd of what you're going to resolve to do instead of thinking about What is what is the season of life that i'm in and what supports do I need? Um, it can be a start or stop of something, but it just comes from a different angular lens with this kind of intention setting instead of resolving to do. It has less determination and more giving and flowing.

Travis Williams (03:44.461)

Yeah, well, I'm curious too, because I know a part of that, you know, people do start more healthy habits or make, you know, people want to make different, I guess, healthier lifestyle changes. I'm curious from your perspective as like a behavioral psychologist, what's the science behind what makes us maybe stick to some of those healthy life changes we want to make?

Samantha Harden (04:11.618)

Yeah, so I think one of the biggest things is understanding your why. So how I kind of came back to intention or resolution, whatever you wanna call it, just tuning in with the why. Because often we're saying I wanna be healthier and whatever that means for you, right? Because some people are already what others might consider the epitome of health, but they still wanna do better or more or something different. But really tuning into your why, helps really ground so that it can be a behavior that can last for hopefully a lifetime, right? So we don't wanna just be active for the sake of being active. Maybe some people do, but we were not evolutionarily meant to exercise in the form that we typically think about it now, right? We evolved to use technology and community so that we can be more sedentary.

So it is so challenging to fight our evolution, our evolutionary desire of resting and conserving energy and instead saying, I need to be physically active. So we wanna get to 150 minutes of aerobic activity and two days of full body strength training for most adults. For youth, we wanna be structured physical activity for 60 minutes a day with three days of muscle strengthening. And I only share that because this comes back to the why.

If I'm saying, well, I need to get more muscle strengthening days in my week, is that because of a recommendation? That's not really a great motivator. But maybe being able to keep up with my kids or be able to easefully put groceries away or be able to tie my shoes or drive my vehicle, right? When we think about our aging adults, when you no longer have the strength to even press a pedal or a brake, that can lead to you not being able to live independently longer. So when you think about your why, think about you as a person walking this lifetime, not about necessarily the guidelines. I've never met a participant or a client who's like, my why is because I wanna meet the guidelines. The why is always about something that's actually going to impact your day-to-day life.

Travis Williams (06:28.518)

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I've never met that person either. I've never been that person despite how much they hammered some of those guidelines into us in like middle school. And it was like, you have to do this visa in reach. And if you can't do it, you're not in the presidential society of whatever that was.

Samantha Harden (06:32.231)

I'm sorry.

Samantha Harden (06:38.487)



Samantha Harden (06:46.922)

Yeah, yeah, well, and I remember that too. And I was always very flexible, but I hated running. And we had to like run around and get the popsicle sticks. And I'd be like, give me your popsicle stick. I don't want to do it. So, you know, again, to your example, if we're doing it to meet guidelines or to get the presidential award of fitness, that's an external or extrinsic motivator. We have to have our internal or intrinsic motivators, the things that... will really get us up in the morning to be more active. And one of my hopes is that more people see movement as a choice instead of a chore. Like the blessing and the ability to move in your body is such a, so many people can't do that. So instead of thinking it as, this is something else that's on my to-do list, it's my get to-do list. By fueling myself, I'm able to then do all of the other things.

The other thing is we're talking about physical activity behaviors. But, you know, in my lab, the physical activity research and community implementation or PARSI laboratory, we're really looking at physical activity as a vehicle for holistic wellbeing called flourishing. I, again, don't know many people who are out there saying the why behind my why is to meet these recommendations. No, it's so that I can feel like.

I can get through the dark days so that I have a good quality of life, so that I can connect with others, so that I can find joy. So I have meaning and purpose. And so these are things that motivate people a lot more than this guidelines or guidance for people to meet and then continuously fall short of. So I think I'll also circle back to your question specifically about why do we fail. And it's because A, we don't have our anchor point in what motivates us truly.

And B is sometimes it just becomes really overwhelming. If you're somebody who's consuming zero or one cups of fruits and vegetables a day, and then you're gonna try to jump to five to 10, that can feel really overwhelming. So we need to meet ourselves where we are. And that's again, where I talked about that intention of what's my environment, what are my behaviors.

Samantha Harden (09:02.506)

What supports do I need and how can I make these slow incremental steps towards a healthy lifestyle? Instead of thinking January 1, that's the start date, you know, put the gas pedal down and let's go, we're going to run out of steam.

Travis Williams (09:19.177)

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. I've met a lot of people that are like, January 1st, I'm gonna start doing this. And they do that for like two weeks. And I'm like, why don't you start that today? What are you doing? What are you doing the next two weeks?

Samantha Harden (09:33.522)

Yeah, the holidays are really challenging from a research perspective. We often really encourage people to not recruit individuals at this time, unless that's the intention of your study, would be to equip people before the holidays. Because I, like you, hear people all the time say, oh, you know, January me will start that and whatnot. And it's like, well, guess what?

January is still going to be dark and cold and busy and fast. And you might also have financial woes from making it through external expectations of what the holidays look like or cost or feel like. And so now you have the financial constraint. And that's also part of the flourishing index, right? When you don't feel financially stable, you might not have the motivation or think that you can afford.

To decline the next door dash so that you can go to the gym because you're always trying to make more money. So these things are interrelated. They're always going to be. And so I just use that as a brief example, right? Because we're always doing a cost benefit analysis. And so it's like, do I try to earn more money or do I take the time out to go be purposefully active or to exercise? And what is that going to cost me? And

People are weighing that all the time.

Travis Williams (10:58.417)

Yeah, yeah. So is what you're describing is that, and I apologize, I either read this or I heard this somewhere, like a socioeconomic model or?

Samantha Harden (11:11.01)

Yeah, the socio-ecologic model is, there's a couple different iterations of it, but basically if you picture kind of the nesting dolls or circles embedded within each other, you have yourself. And so you have the individual level, your motivations, your values, your needs, and some of your genetic composition.

Then you are an individual within a family that has its own values and experiences and expectations and characteristics. And that family exists within a community, that community exists within larger infrastructure and organizations and then policy. And so I love that you brought this up because a lot of what I've been talking about is at the individual level, right, that intrapersonal dialogue. But one of the things we do know is that

When your community is more active, you are more likely to be active. If your community does not smoke or vape, you are more likely to not smoke or vape. If you are someone who eats a plant-based diet, you're most likely to socialize with people who lean somewhere on that plant-based diet spectrum. And so we know that personality and characteristics of the people that we wanna belong to and belong with really influence us. One of the seminal articles from Baumeister and Leary, my favorite quote, well not my favorite quote, but a good quote is that all people have an inherent need to belong. And so we shift our behavior so that we quote unquote belong, or so that we have a perception of belonging. And so when, when you find groups of teens that are really active, they have a whole community around being active. And so that interpersonal then influences your community's desire, what we call in Virginia Cooperative Extension and in other spaces, PSE, Policy System and Environmental Approaches. So I'm looking out my window and I'm seeing, we have connected sidewalks everywhere near my building, but that's not the case when you go just up the road to Christiansburg, Virginia, when compared to Blacksburg, Virginia.

Samantha Harden (13:30.014)

And so we have, you know, walking indexes and things like that to share, you know, how walkable or wheelable is your community. So we need to think about connectivity and safety and spaces, because it's not just, do you want to be active? It's, is there a place for you to be active? And I'll end with one other note on the PSE front, because people will say, oh, well, if you don't have a sidewalk to work out on, just like put a...put a DVD on or a YouTube and, okay, DVD, no one's recommending DVDs, but they'll say, just watch a YouTube or whatever, but then you're not, again, thinking about the context. So there are individuals that live in rural areas like myself, and I still have satellite. I don't have streaming internet as quickly as I might want to. And when we first moved, it was like, oh, I'm draining the internet. So I wouldn't dare.

Again, that cost benefit. I wouldn't dare drain the internet that we need for work to work out. So people are making these decisions all the time. And when people are not putting themselves in other people's seats, they're not understanding the complexity and the dynamic nature of these decisions that we have to make all the time. So when you have an environment that supports helpful decisions or what we call making the healthy choice the default choice, you're more likely to be able to be more healthy, more active, etc.

Travis Williams (14:56.777)

Yeah, that's great. Cause I was going to ask you what some of the other factors and support systems were that are beneficial to people. But I feel like you answered to that. And I'm sorry that I kind of butchered that term, trying to explain it. Well, I wrote it down, but I, as classic me, I wrote it down and I couldn't read what I wrote.

Samantha Harden (15:06.686)

Oh, that's okay.

Samantha Harden (15:14.282)

Yeah, people often just call it the SEM. So then you don't even have to know what it stands for.

Travis Williams (15:19.489)

That sounds very much like a research thing. Let's give it an acronym. Now, that's awesome. That's awesome. Well, you kind of mentioned a little bit the name Extension, Virginia Cooperative Extension. I'm curious, what role do you have with Virginia Cooperative Extension? And how might people tap into Extension in ways that they might not even realize that they could?

Samantha Harden (15:22.859)

I'm going to go to bed.

Samantha Harden (15:46.494)

I get this question a lot. So cooperative extension is available in every state and territory in the US. It's a federally funded system that also has partial funds at the state and county level. So if you are living in the United States, you have access to your extension system. Extension really has a rich history in agriculture.

Not surprising because we're funded through the United States Department of Agriculture. And what happened was really what extension is if you think about extending the university developed information to the community. So it started with people going on to farms and sharing different crop and soil practices and those types of things when more people lived in rural communities.

And what happened was when these agents, these cooperative extension agents, were going out into the field and having those conversations on the farm, the householder would often come out of the home and say, who's here? Why are they here? Where are they coming from? So, oh, they're from the university. They're here to give us some tips and tricks. Well, I could use some tips and tricks.

And that's how Family and Consumer Sciences was born. So then multiple agents would go to the farm and talk about how to do food safety and handling, canning, all of these things that really were kind of coming full circle to. Extension is about 100 years old. And it's interesting to think how many people are looking for how do I do canning? How do I have a small garden? How do I get to be more efficient and have... richer, nutrient richer foods at my fingertips. And it's a skill and it also requires time. So extension is available to help build those skills in the community. Now, as we mentioned at the top of the call, I'm the exercise specialist. So when I was hired, I was here to say, okay, yes, we wanna have our nutritious dietary patterns, but we also wanna balance that.

Samantha Harden (17:54.978)

With being physically active. And we really have a lot of, you know, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have a campaign called Move Your Way. So this is not about, you know, going to the gym, lifting weights. If that's your way, you do that thing. But if you wanna get your movement by throwing a frisbee with your dog and gardening and pulling weeds every day, that's movement too. So really trying to rephrase again, like,

What's exercise, what's physical activity, and what's the purpose of each, and how are you embracing that and fitting that into your daily routines as well. So that's Extension. And you can tap into them by going to the website. We have our programs. And then if you're in a specific county, specifically if you're tuning in Virginia, you can search for your county representatives and see what kinds of programming.

That they're offering as well. Many of the agents and specialists are trying to be more active on social media, so check there as well, and then just kind of the national cooperative extension as well. And I will just plug as either research partners or to actually receive intervention as well. So extensions here for anything and everything.

Travis Williams (19:10.045)

And you don't have to be a farmer to use it, right?

Samantha Harden (19:12.074)

You don't even have to be a farmer. Yes, that could be, yeah, that could be the 2024 campaign. You don't even have to be a farmer.

Travis Williams (19:14.913)

That should be their new tagline.

Travis Williams (19:23.853)

Well, that's awesome. Well, I know we started at the beginning of this talking a little bit about resolutions. I know we started at the beginning of this conversation talking about resolutions. I'm not gonna ask you about that because we've already talked some about it, but I'm curious, what are you most excited about looking into a new year?

Samantha Harden (19:41.774)

Oh, that shouldn't be such a tough question. I'm feeling it. I do a lot of reflection towards the end of the year. I do a lot of intention setting and kind of ritual and devotion into where is my energy and what do I wanna do? I earned tenure in 2020, which was a challenging time because for any academic also listening, I kept thinking like, as soon as I get tenure, I'll come off the gas pedal and just kind of like give myself some breathing room. And that didn't happen because we were, as many people, transitioning our entire research program to virtual spaces and trying to get students still graduated. It was work-wise and personally a challenging time. And then I went on sabbatical for six months and it was glorious.

But I don't feel like I came up with my next five-year plan. So my intention after this week is to set up a five-year plan, knowing that I have no control over anything but just kind of a five-year plan for my lab and redefining what success will look like in terms of physical activity promotion through Virginia Cooperative Extension. And we are going to launch a yoga teacher training for Cooperative Extension agents because I believe that yoga is one practice. If we look at the public health kernels of breathing, movement, and moment-to-moment awareness, those align with so many different scientific fields. And if we learn how to practice those in ways that are equitable and accessible and feasible and practical and all these other things, then I think more people will be flourishing in their lives.

And I think Cooperative Extension agents can be the extending arm of that. So we're really excited to launch that in 2024.

Travis Williams (21:46.193)

Awesome. Well, thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it. Yeah, I'm gonna, I'll say it'll stop this.

Samantha Harden (21:51.062)

Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me.