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Winnie Gebhardt talking about research on health behaviour

I am an associate professor in health psychology here at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. My main line of work is health behaviour and behaviour change, so trying to understand why people do what they do including clearly unhealthy things. I have done a lot of work on personal goals and how health goals are represented in the personal goal structure, as well as how goal conflict and facilitation may influence behaviour.

For example, if we exercise three times a week does that conflict with other things or does it facilitate other goals that are personally relevant? Recently, my work mainly involves the role of identity processes in behavioural change: how do behaviours connect with our self-perceptions. I research how to develop interventions that help people realize that changing behaviours can help them become their more authentic selves. Behaviour-wise, I am interested in smoking, alcohol use, exercise, safer sexualbehaviour…

Has health always been your main research interest?

After my studies in Psychology at Utrecht University, I went to the USA for a period where I worked in a multidisciplinary team at a headache clinic. Thus, my main area of interest initially was chronic pain. I found it very interesting, but along the line, my main focus shifted to prevention rather than treatment. I came to Leiden in 1992 as a PhD student and ever since, my main research interest has been health behaviour and prevention.

Behaviour change and prevention research is filling a need in the healthcare system. Doctors have patients that have cancer, or cardiac conditions but still continue to smoke. And naturally they become frustrated with their patients! I am never going to say that you can change everyone, but doctors see a lot of patients and even if they “only” manage to help 10 percent of them to change their behaviour, that’s still a lot of people! And with some additional psychological insights, I believe that they can help increase those percentages quite substantially.

Winnie Gebhardt at the Healthy University Week Kick off

You are one of the initiators of Healthy University Week here at Leiden. Could you tell us more about that?

Students from the Master’s in Health & Medical Psychology develop an intervention protocol as part of their coursework. As a final component of their project, they have the opportunity of gaining practical experience by giving workshop on the topic. In the past, we went to secondary schools around Leiden and the students gave their practical lessons on a specific health topic there. A few years ago, we decided that it would be nice to have the workshops in our own community, and that’s when the Healthy Faculty Days were “born”. It later grew into a university-wide event. Over the past two years, we have unfortunately only given workshops to employees, but I am sure that in the following years, Healthy University Week will once again come back to being for everyone, thus also the students, again.

Do you have any health-related tips for students or faculty members?

It’s better to start with small goals. For example, I decided that instead of emailing my colleagues, I will first take a walk to their office to talk to them in person. Keep in mind that you need to find something that works for you. Something that helps you feel like yourself. If you want to lose weight, you might want to go on a diet. But then if you notice that after a while that you are not losing enough kilograms, you might think “it’s not enough, it will take me years to reach my goal” and you might not want to continue. However, if you focus on yourself and what makes you feel like you (instead of on an external goal), then you are likely to be more motivated to continue, even if you experience some setbacks.

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