Active Voice: Rebranding Exercise

By Michelle Segar, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Michelle Segar, Ph.D., M.P.H., is the associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center for Women and Girls at the University of Michigan and an incoming Fellow at the Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation. She is an ACSM member and researches how culture influences individuals’ exercise goals and motivation, as well as what fosters sustainable participation. Dr. Segar’s ideas presented in this commentary were recently featured in The New York Times and reflect her published research that “feel-good” benefits from physical activity predict greater participation than “health” benefits.

Communications promoting exercise and physical activity (PA) typically feature health and disease-prevention benefits. Clinicians also frequently recommend PA as a way to lose weight alongside with changing diet. People know about the health-related benefits of PA, with 75% of adults reporting exercising for health- or weight-related reasons. The good news is that we have done an excellent job branding exercise as medicine and educating the public about the valuable health benefits that accompany PA.

The bad news is that health-focused reasons for PA might not be the best ones to motivate sustainable participation. New research challenges the societal convention to promote PA for health-related benefits. There is growing evidence that “feel-good” benefits (improved mood, fun, etc.) more strongly predict PA intentions and behavior than logical, health-focused ones. Logic doesn’t motivate. Emotions do. This effect was recently seen in studies conducted among individuals in different life stages, with stronger effects among inactive individuals. Even among the elderly, those for whom disease prevention should be an especially relevant concern, the “feel-good” rewards from PA better predict participation over health-related benefits.

Reprinted with permission from Segar ML, Eccles JS, Richardson CR. Rebranding exercise: closing the gap between values and behavior. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2011, 8:94.

Longitudinal research also supports these findings. Our study published last year in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity asked midlife participants why they valued exercising, and followed them over one year to discover which values predicted the most participation. Those who valued exercise for benefits related to health or weight participated 15% to 34% less compared with those who exercised to enhance the quality of their daily life (See graph). Intervention research further shows that increasing positive experiences from PA are among the strongest predictors of long-term participation. Thus, evidence is mounting to support a communication strategy that replaces medical prescriptions for PA with positive, experiential hooks.

The possible supremacy of the “feel-good” benefits from PA might be due to what is called a “present focus” bias, meaning that people are more motivated by rewards that they will immediately experience over those they have to wait for. In addition, the instant positivity that accompanies PA (less stress, more energy, etc.) helps people better enjoy and fulfill their most meaningful roles and responsibilities. This purpose for PA transforms it from a chore into a gift that fosters people’s fundamental psychological needs and makes it more relevant and compelling to fit into our busy lives, consistently. In my own practice, I constantly witness how this transformation ignites an authentic desire to remain physically active among clients.

Smart marketers know that their goals for promoting a behavior are irrelevant to the specific rewards that will be most persuasive to their target audience. Only a minority of people report exercising for “feel-good” reasons. Those who do exercise for “feel-good” benefits tend to be regularly active and not sedentary. So, we have an amazing opportunity to re-socialize the majority of the population, those who are most sedentary, about how PA can energize their lives through changing the “hooks” we use in marketing and counseling. We still need to investigate what will be optimal messages by gender, ethnicity, life stage, and other demographics. Yet, by rebranding PA for the immediate and meaningful ways it can energize people’s daily lives, we might help PA more effectively compete against our many other daily “to do’s”–something that should better foster the long-term sustainability of physically active lifestyles.