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A tape measure could save your life

Every one of us needs to keep a tape measure available. That simple yellow tool, available for less than $4 in drug and hardware stores, could save your life.

No eye-rolling allowed.

Think about it this way. Measuring your waist circumference (the area just above your hip bones) every few months is "a great way to keep tabs on your weight and your risk for heart disease," according to the April 2013 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

Cardiologists increasingly tout its effectiveness. Your own health provider may have pulled one out of a desk drawer at your last check-up. (I like it best when they measure their on waistlines first.)

Men with waist measurements greater than 40 inches and woman whose waists measure in excess of 35 inches need to pause and ponder their higher risk of heart disease. Why do you think most tape measures are yellow? Consider it a caution flag. Sometimes it's a simple "aha" moment involving waist measurement that starts us down a track toward lifestyle change.

Here's a question for you: "When provided information about their health and advised about making changes, what motivates people to act?" What motivates you?

According to health experts, "fear of death" is a great motivator. Although, that said, people who have heart attacks and even near-death experiences may quit smoking or eat fewer fats and carbs — for a while. But it often does not last.

So, here's another question: "What keeps people committed to a lifestyle change?"

Apparently, there are more than 20 commonly studied theories (www.harvard.edu). They often start with the idea of "perceived threat," such as, "My father died of a heart attack at an early age, and I realize my waistline measures 38 inches ... yikes."

Other theories behind making effective lifestyle changes include your personal belief in the "immediate benefits." As one health provider puts it, "Behavior change needs to be anchored to improvements that can be experienced now."

There's always a consideration of the actual costs of doing something differently. You might think of it in terms of avoiding the costs inevitably attached to a heart-related health emergency, or maybe you see it as personal cost-benefit, such as, "Will I be able to stop eating a bowl of ice cream before bed; doing that actually makes me sleep better."

According to the American Psychological Association (www.apa.org/research/action/motivate.aspx), "Certain behaviors may be more effectively encouraged if they are framed in terms of benefits vs. costs. It's called gain-framing and loss-framing, respectively."

A gain-framing message would be, "Consider that yellow tape measure as a way to reduce your risk of a heart attack."

A loss-framing message might be, "If you have a chubby middle, you increase your risk of heart problems."

There are a multitude of factors that can help us make effective changes. Your own self-confidence that you can do this is high on the list. It's the "I will" phenomena vs. "I probably could never really make that change."

Let's start with, "I will find a tape measure," and see where it takes us.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at 541-261-2037 or Sharon@hmj.com