Forget Health…Happiness Best Exercise Motivator
September 8, 2012
Wrong way … promoting future benefits of exercise fails to motivate.
What would it take to persuade you to exercise? A desire to lose weight or improve your figure? To keep heart disease, cancer or diabetes at bay? To lower blood pressure or cholesterol? To protect your bones? To live to a healthy old age?
You’d think any of those reasons would be sufficient to get people exercising, but scores of studies have shown otherwise. It seems that public health experts, doctors and exercise devotees in the media have been using ineffective tactics to entice sedentary people to become, and remain, physically active.
Research by psychologists suggests it’s time to stop thinking of future health, weight loss and body image as motivators. Instead, they recommend a strategy marketers use to sell products: portray physical activity as a way to enhance wellbeing and happiness.
”We need to make exercise relevant to people’s daily lives,” a research investigator at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan, Michelle Segar, says. ”Everyone’s schedule is packed with nonstop to-dos. We can only fit in what’s essential.”
Segar is among those who believe that people will not commit to exercise if they see its benefits as distant or theoretical.
”It has to be portrayed as a compelling behaviour that can benefit us today,” she says. ”People who say they exercise for its benefits to quality of life exercise more over the course of a year than those who say they value exercise for its health benefits.”
Her idea for a public service advertisement to promote exercise for working women with families: a woman is shown walking around the block after dinner with her children and says: ”This is great. I can fit in fitness, spend quality time with my kids, and at the same time teach them how important exercise is.”
Based on studies of what motivates people to adopt and sustain activity, Segar is urging experts to stop framing moderate exercise as a medical prescription requiring 150 minutes of aerobic effort each week. ”Immediate rewards are more motivating than distant ones. Feeling happy and less stressed is more motivating than not getting heart disease or cancer, maybe, someday in the future.”
In a study of 252 office workers, two psychologists at Bangor University in Wales, David Ingledew and David Markland, found while many began to exercise to lose weight and improve their appearance, these motivations did not keep them exercising in the long term. ”The wellbeing and enjoyment benefits of exercise should be emphasised,” they found.
Segar put it this way: ”Physical activity is an elixir of life, but we’re not teaching people that. We’re telling them it’s a pill to take or a punishment for bad numbers on the scale.”
Other studies have shown that what gets people up and keeps them moving depends on age, gender, life circumstances and even ethnicity. For those of college age, for example, physical attractiveness typically heads the list of reasons to begin exercising, although what keeps them going seems to be the stress relief that regular exercise provides.
The elderly, on the other hand, might get started because of health concerns. Often what keeps them exercising are the friendships and sense of community that might be missing from their lives.
In a study of 1690 overweight or obese middle-aged men and women, Segar found that enhancing daily wellbeing was the most influential factor for the women. Men were motivated by more distant health benefits, although she suspects this might be because men feel less comfortable discussing their mental health needs.
Many people, if not most, start exercising because they want to lose weight. Often they abandon exercise when the kilograms fail to fall off. Study after study has found that without changes in eating habits, increasing physical activity is only somewhat effective for losing weight, though it helps maintain weight loss, and shedding even a few kilos, especially around one’s middle, can improve health.
Researchers in Brisbane and in Leeds, England, studied 58 sedentary overweight or obese men and women taking part in a 12-week aerobic exercise program. Weight loss was minimal, but even so their waistlines shrunk, their blood pressure and resting heart rate dropped, and their aerobic capacity and mood improved. ”Exercise should be encouraged and the emphasis on weight loss reduced,” the study concluded. ”Disappointment and low self-esteem associated with poor weight loss could lead to low exercise adherence and a general perception that exercise is futile and not beneficial.”