Just do it
If you do not have the willpower to see through your fitness routine, try ‘locking’ yourself in.
A beauty - and an important underlying principle - of behavioral interventions is that it doesn’t restrict free will. None of these techniques advocate paternalistic behaviors from the governments or communities. People are not told directly that they can or cannot consume particular foods. Instead, various factors in their environment (e.g., portion sizes) are altered in order to nudge them towards choosing the desired behavior. Now, let’s think about how we can get to more exercising. Think about all the New Year celebrations that have included resolutions about this.
Economic theory suggests that if we have all the information, we would make decisions in our own self-interest. Behavioral Science, on the other hand, uses the psychological processes to describe how people actually make decisions. For example, research clearly shows that people put disproportionate emphasis on immediate gratification rather than on future benefits and this is a major cause of behaviors such as procrastination and lack of self-control. When it comes to exercising, one needs to make the effort and endure painful muscles in the present in order to gain health benefits that might emerge in the future. Who wants to do that? We may rather enjoy chocolates now for who has seen the future. Many times, we have the best intentions to start healthy behaviors in the future (e.g., to exercise more, eat well, quit smoking), but when the future arrives, we fail to follow through.
One way to push our future self into desired behaviors is through the use of what is called “commitment devices.” We see several examples of these around us such as when we put alarm clocks in other rooms forcing our future-self to get out of bed to shut it off. Basically, these are ways of locking ourselves into doing something that we know we wouldn't have the willpower to do when the future time comes. Much research has been done on creating effective commitment devices for exercising. We know that we get motivated best when our own money gets at stake. Incentive-based contracts are getting popular where people put their money voluntarily into accounts that can only be accessed after the exercise goals have been accomplished. Web platforms such as stickK and Pact allows users to do exactly this.
Use of gamification – the idea that fun elements can be incorporated – to promote exercise is a promising technique. ‘Step2Get’ is an initiative that was experimented with some schoolchildren in London. Students were given a card that they could swipe on the machines put on lamp-posts found on their way to school. With that, they could collect points that could be redeemed in exchange of vouchers. The results from the experiment showed an increase of 10 percent in the number of kids walking to school. Then there are apps that allow one to track the run statistics, share it with their social network, and also deliver motivational messages along the way. Perhaps, the latest craze around augmented reality games such as Pokémon Go could be put to promote exercising and being outdoors.
Moreover, current urban planning often makes physical activity unnatural and difficult to achieve such as without clear walkways or cycle tracks. Most of us are aware of the health benefits of taking the stairs instead of the elevators or escalators but often fail to do so for the lack of time or because we forget or are plain lazy. Placement of signage pointing to the benefits of stairs along with convenient stair-case locations is a pre-requisite. In Singapore’s metro stations, catchy signs about calories burned adorn the steps that attract commuters’ attention as one begins to climbs up the staircase. In one experiment in Stockholm, stairs were made in the form of piano keys and music was played.
A key challenge for improving physical fitness is tackling social norms. Netherlands, for example, is popular for it cycling culture and it is fascinating to see the sizes and shapes of the bikes there. It is indeed a major mode of transportation used regularly for activities such as getting to office, picking up kids from school, and shopping. The roads are bicycle-friendly with separate tracks and traffic signals. Changing the mindset where cycling has nothing to do with being economically disadvantaged and instead gets associated with environmental and health consciousness could go a long way. The car-free days being organized in several Indian cities is a good first-step in that direction.
Over the last decade, jobs with inactive and sedentary lifestyles have increased. Opportunities for exercise need to be created in our everyday life routines. Governments and companies need to support this through recreational, transportation, and occupational changes. Meanwhile, for the next New Year Resolution, try putting your money at stake using a commitment contract with your best buddy.
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Dr. Kriti Jain