Behavioral factors play a role in each of the twelve leading causes of death, including chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke, which are the major causes of death in the United Statesand other developed countries.
In the broadest sense, health behavior refers to the actions of individuals, groups, and organizations, as well as the determinants, correlates, and consequences, of these actions—which include social change, policy development and implementation, improved coping skills, and enhanced quality of life. This is similar to the working definition of health behavior that David Gochman proposed, which includes not only observable, overt actions but also the mental events and emotional states that can be reported and measured. Gochman defined health behavior as "those personal attributes such as beliefs, expectations, motives, values, perceptions, and other cognitive elements; personality characteristics, including affective and emotional states and traits; and overt behavior patterns, actions, and habits that relate to health maintenance, to health restoration, and to health improvement." Interestingly, this definition emphasizes the actions and the health of individuals.
A public health perspective, in contrast, is concerned with individuals as part of a larger community. These perspectives are interrelated, as the behaviors of individuals determine many of the social conditions that affect all people's health.
Gochman's definition is consistent with the definitions of specific categories of overt health behavior proposed by S. Kasl and S. Cobb. In two seminal 1966 articles, Kasl and Cobb define three categories of health behavior:
Preventive health behavior involves any activity undertaken by individuals who believe themselves to be healthy for the purpose of preventing or detecting illness in a asymptomatic state. This can include self-protective behavior, which is an action intended to confer protection from potential harm, such as wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle, using seat belts, or wearing a condom during sexual activity. Self-protective behavior is also known as cautious behavior.Illness behavior is any activity undertaken by individuals who perceive themselves to be ill for the purpose of defining their state of health, and discovering a suitable remedy.Sick-role behavior involves any activity undertaken by those who consider themselves to be ill for the purpose of getting well.
It includes receiving treatment from medical providers, generally involves a whole range of dependent behaviors, and leads to some degree of exemption from one's usual responsibilities.
These classic definitions have stood the test of time, and continue to be used by students and public health workers alike. However, the lines between these three categories have blurred somewhat over time, and there are also several categories of behavior that warrant specific definitions.
Behavior versus Lifestyle. Health behavior can be something that is done once, or something that is done periodically—like getting immunizations or a flu shot. It can also be something that one does only to oneself, such as putting on sunscreen, or a behavior that affects others, like putting up a shade cover so that children at a playground are protected from the sun. Other health behaviors are actions that are performed over a long period of time, such as eating a healthful diet, getting regular physical activity, and avoiding tobacco use.
It is these latter types of behaviors, which are sustained patters of complex behavior, that are called "lifestyle" behaviors. A composite of various healthful behaviors is often referred to as "healthy lifestyle." However, most people do not practice either healthful or risky behaviors with complete consistency—someone might get regular, health-promoting exercise several times a week but be a cigarette smoker who seldom brushes his or her teeth; or someone might quit smoking, only to begin eating chocolate as a substitute. In the ideal, the person who practices a variety of behaviors in a health-enhancing manner can be described as living a healthy lifestyle. More realistically, though, many people practice some, but not all, lifestyle behaviors in a consistently healthful manner.