Thursday, August 30, 2012

Getting People to Exercise

Traditionally, therapists have helped people to explore their own minds, rearrange their mental furniture and feel better about themselves.

They have largely missed a more relevant question: how do you motivate other people?

It is an extremely difficult task, made perplexing when you are trying to get someone to do something that is clearly good for him.

Other people exist and if you do not know how to motivate them you are going to have a difficult time of it.

Any leader, manager, parent or coach knows that motivating other people, getting them, as Dwight Eisenhower famously put it, to do what needs to be done because they want to do it, is extraordinarily difficult.

Recently, Jane Brody addressed the question in The New York Times. As the Times health columnist Brody has been advising people to take up physical exercise for many years now. She knows, and has happily told people that one of the best things you can do for your health is to maintain an exercise routine.

She is hardly alone. The news has been broadcast and disseminated far and wide. Everyone knows that he must do more exercise. Precious few Americans do so.

Brody frames the question this way:

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 your 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 Americans exercising, but scores of studies have shown otherwise. It seems that public health experts, doctors and exercise devotees in the media — like me — have been using ineffective tactics to entice sedentary people to become, and remain, physically active.

For decades, people have been bombarded with messages that regular exercise is necessary to lose weight, prevent serious disease and foster healthy aging. And yes, most people say they value these goals. Yet a vast majority of Americans — two-thirds of whom are overweight or obese — have thus far failed to swallow the “exercise pill.”

One should add that exercise has also been shown to confer important mental health benefits, too.

Why have the methods not worked? New research, Brody reports, has shown that people are more motivated to exercise when they see it in terms of an immediate benefit than when they are told that it will confer long term advantages.

Current well-being is a better incentive than future well-being.

I accept the research, but I believe that it is more difficult than that. When it comes to depression people are more willing to take medication that will take weeks to work than to undertake an exercise program that will produce positive results in a shorter period of time.

Let’s examine the question in more depth.

First, lethargy and sloth are bad habits. There is no magic bullet, no new way of framing the question that will suddenly erase a bad habit.

It takes time and effort and guidance to replace a bad habit with a good one.

Second, Brody points us in a good direction when she talks about the “exercise pill.”

For people who are generally lethargic, taking a pill is much easier than putting in the time and effort to do exercise.

Taking a pill fits well in a lifestyle characterized by sloth. Exercise does not.

Exercise feels like work. People who refuse to do it have probably lost their work ethic, too.

Third, advising people to exercise in order to be fit and healthy is contradicted by the fact that we receive medical care passively.

It takes no real effort to undergo surgery or to have a blood test.

In culture that equates good health with passively consuming medical care the message to become more active has had great difficulty taking hold.

Fourth, thanks to the therapy culture we have convinced ourselves that we are independent, autonomous beings who should not be taking anyone else’s advice.

People have learned that taking advice is bad for their soul. When they refuse to do what is good for their bodies they imagine that they are saving their souls.

Fifth, thanks again to the therapy culture most Americans believe that we can achieve happiness by sating our appetites.

Culture mavens tell everyone that they must satisfy their sexual appetites and that there is no such thing as too much sex.

But, once you have established the principle that people gain a benefit from satisfying their appetites, nothing will prevent them from applying the principle to their alimentary appetites.

And since doing exercise feels more like work and less like a lobster dinner, people who follow the culture’s dictates will likely forget about the first in order to revel in the second.

Sixth, people have been told that it doesn’t matter what other people think of them or how others see them.

Thus, people who are unhealthy and overweight console themselves by thinking that no one has a right to judge them.

If you are trying to convince such a being to exercise, you cannot tell him that his good health will benefit the team, the family or the community.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Since the traditional methods seem to be inadequate, perhaps we ought to appeal to more trendy and cultural impulses. I say we should exercise to better our chances of surviving the zombie apocalypse. That will require stamina, strength, agility and quickness on your feet (both mentally and physically).

If THAT does not motivate you to exercise, then nothing will!