Motivating Fitness: What are We Missing?
Chasing improvement can be a daunting task…
Chasing improvement can be a daunting task. Whether it affects day-to-day life or sets up the future, we make decisions based on what we think is best for us. With the New Year barely behind us, our need for improvement is more evident than ever. Unfortunately, New Year’s resolutions have become infamous for their lack of durability. Our ambitious decisions often prove burdensome and bring disappointment as our expectations don’t quite reach reality. This is especially evident in the notoriously challenging task of maintaining an exercise routine.
There are many reasons for this challenge, but by looking toward behavioural science and psychology, the picture becomes a whole lot clearer.
Currently, fitness marketing tends to lean toward muscle growth. Our society seems to tell us that if we exercise, an immediate and proportional relationship will supposedly occur. That is, we expect to see the progress reflected in immediate and obvious physical changes. Sadly, in the absence of obvious improvements, the incentive is too often lost.
Receive your monthly dose of Brain & Behaviour Insights by email. Full of the latest insights, examples and applications. In addition, you will also receive a discount code for our Crash Course and our best articles.
Accurate representation is often disregarded and concealed for the benefit of easier marketing. The food, clothing, and fitness industry have all demonstrated a lack of realistic representation as a means of suppressing the shortcomings in their product. This is particularly visible in terms of male body representation in the fitness industry. The unrealistic expectations are what bring in the most customers and consequently profit. If the overly muscular man on every gym poster was to be replaced by a sensible portrayal, an everyday person may find themselves lacking motivation. Such a statement calls for a better understanding of human behaviour and poses the question: Why? Why shouldn’t people be motivated by realistic portrayals? Should we change the way we approach our goals?
Bias and Gratification
When making decisions, it can be easy to set our sights on a precise goal, thereby disregard the potential outcomes. Such a tendency is called attention bias. We become so focused on our path that we ignore alternate possibilities. Importantly, this all occurs at the level of attention, meaning that it is not a conscious choice but a perceptual limitation. You may recognise this experience if you have ever really wanted a particular type of car. Suddenly, you start to see is that type of car everywhere you look. The actual number of cars did not increase, you just became more attuned to the ones that were already there in your environment (frequency illusion). This narrow outlook can be a defining factor in the inability to progress. Keeping in mind that the primary motive for most gym-goers is to reach an unrealistic physical expectation, any alternative objective may spark an uncaring attitude.
About 50% of people quit the gym following a six-month period .In addition to the attention bias, we crave instant gratification. Unfortunately, exercise has not and never will be a short-term solution. Progress doesn’t necessarily have to be linear, nor does it have to be abundantly clear or visible. For most, it takes years of persistent work for their goals to be reached.
The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment on delayed gratification (1972) the human need for immediate fulfilment. In the study, several children were situated in individual rooms. Each child was presented with the chance of receiving one reward (e.g., a marshmallow) instantly or waiting a period of time to be given an additional reward (e.g., two marshmallows!). This was done by leaving the child alone in a room and waiting for their decision: to eat now or to wait for a better deal.
The longitudinal results of the experiment demonstrated that the kids who chose to wait went on to better educational accomplishments many years in the future, which may include fitness accomplishments. Notably, a factor that brings more understanding for fitness lies in the embodiment of the reward. Delayed gratification called for fixation on a desired future state, or rather a suppression of attention bias. What made it considerably more difficult to act patiently was the flaunting of the reward. The children that saw the first reward were likely to concede, while children that saw no rewards demonstrated more composure.
The gym and its participants, likewise, are troubled by the reward that is constantly flaunted at every corner of their minds. The idea that we should look as perfect as the thousands of billboard photos in our everyday environment is detrimental to our depiction of reality. These photos underwent professional editing, smoothing, lighting, makeup, and more. to make them seem flawless. Although, this does not stop the fitness industry from placing it before individuals and claiming it is in fact possible for us to obtain instant glorification. Advertisements that glorify training programs for six-minute abs and substantial muscle growth within weeks prohibit us from seeing the second reward. More specifically, there is more to exercise than being muscular and aesthetic.
But what exactly are these second motivators? Exercise is biologically rewarding for its own sake; it produces endorphins and other hormones and neurotransmitters that make you feel good. Additionally, there are countless long-term benefits that your body will thank you for later. The trick to a good gym habit is to find another reason other than aesthetic improvement as a primary motivator. This could be a self-made reinforcement schedule (e.g., if I go to the gym 3 times this week, I will buy myself something I want), to improve the way you think and feel, or to achieve certain physical milestones (e.g., I want to learn how to do a pull up). The aesthetic part should probably just come as a happy coincidence.
Although most people abandoned the gym as the progress doesn’t appear as drastically as advertised, encouragement should still be the defining factor for fitness marketing. The second reward may prove to be as significant as the first.
Despite the inaccurate ambition and misrepresentation that most might have when starting to exercise, achievable goals are still manageable. Gaining muscle for a better appearance and overall confidence is an objective that is certainly attainable, but it shouldn’t be your primary motivator. By focusing on superficial, delayed, personal motivators like aesthetic appearance, the fitness industry may have actually sacrificed genuine motivation for the sake of profit. Psychology and behavioural science provide a considerably better route toward a more motivating and healthy exercise environment for everyone.
If you want to learn more about behavioral insights, read our blog or watch 100+ videos on our YouTube channel!
Neurofied is a behavioral science company specialized in training, consulting, and change management. We help organizations drive evidence-based and human-centric change with insights and interventions from behavioral psychology and neuroscience. Consider us your behavioral business partner who helps you build behavioral change capabilities internally.
Since 2018, we have trained thousands of professionals and worked with over 100 management, HR, growth, and innovation teams of organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, KPMG, Deloitte, Novo Nordisk, ABN AMRO, and the Dutch government. We are also frequent speakers at universities and conferences.
Our mission is to democratize the value of behavioral science for teams and organizations. If you see any opportunities to collaborate, please contact us here.
Caudwell, K. & Keatley, D. (2016). The Effect of Men’s Body Attitudes and Motivation for Gym Attendance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30 (9), 2550-2556. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001344.