Blood pressure. Cholesterol. Guilt level?

Heart experts at the University of Pennsylvania say doctors should ask their patients if they are feeling guilty about the factors that put them at risk for heart disease when they go in for a checkup.

Dr. James Kirkpatrick said doctors currently use guilt to try to motivate people to shape up, or they don’t address it at all. A recent survey of heart patients, most of whom had suffered heart attacks or congestive heart failure, suggests doctors should try to see if guilt is motivating their patients to or keeping them from getting healthier.

“Not just to try to get them to change their lifestyles,” Kirkpatrick said, “but also to  explore whether this is something that might be inhibiting them from changing their lifestyles. If they feel as if they just can't do it and are wracked by guilt maybe they need to discuss that and ways they could get over that."

In a survey of 100 heart patients, Kirkpatrick found about two-thirds said guilt gave them motivation to make lifestyle changes. About half said they wanted to talk with their doctors about feelings of guilt.

New York University psychology professor David Amodio calls guilt one of the most potent natural motivators. He said in that way, it could be useful in health outcomes. As long as doctors do not make patients feel shame, or as if they were being publicly judged, calling attention to how we fall short of our goals could improve outcomes.

Amodio said his advice to doctors is to make patients “come to notice the difference between what they've done and what their standards are on their own."

"Then they'll feel guilty about it and they won't attribute the negative feeling of the guilt to the doctor," he said.

Good advice for anyone trying to make others come to terms with bad habits.