Exercise Carrot? Play on the Team?

Why won’t the very individuals that need the data, logging and exercise participation tools developed by creative and dedicated companies actually use them?  That is a problem that we all grapple with and we succeed at varying levels not always in balance with time and money invested in the process. The recent end to Google’s  Health Records Service seems a good time to address the basic premises behind a lot of hard work and innovative technologies.

What’s the problem?  I wish I knew.  In my experience over the past 15 years with people of all ages in a wide and diverse set of environments one thing seems to be a factor: People are too busy with other things – there is an information overload even for those who might be motivated to begin a tracking or logging habit around diet or exercise.

That behavior change is a tough sell to the individual, because the “individual” is never the specific target.  Behavioral inertia is a function of our choices and habits – both the good ones and the bad ones. Selling directly to the individual consumer might work for the “sale” but not for the long term compliance to use the product – whether it is a gym membership, a fitness dvd, new jogging shoes etc. In the longterm, the individual is pushed toward daily choices by their sense of having power, choice or control over their actions – at any age.  If work, family and other things are limiting, stressful and overwhelming they will head to something they have control over for their leisure, social, entertainment and “off-time” choices. Exercise and wellness pursuits requiring discipline or change don’t usually make the top of the list.

Competence is another basic human need and when an individual is not competent at sports, exercise and being active (because of choices – see above) they don’t choose that. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan can provide rich insights at their research PDF website. 
Do we have a key to behavior change? Relatedness, or an individual’s need to feel connected socially or to a group is a powerful tool.  This is also related to a person feeling valued by things outside his or her self.
The way to get it right? Allow an individual to feel connected to others socially, to feel related and to function effectively among their social network and to feel a personal initiative in doing so.  Well, that’s easier said than done!
The key could very well be the process of identifying the “personal initiative” that resonates with various social networks of collective individuals. If we want to manifest motivation and sustain engagement with even the best PROGRAM we need to discover a process that attends to all of these needs. This puzzle has been explored by the best, maybe the research we are all most familiar with is via the book, CONNECTED (Christakis, Fowler) and related articles.
What if a person feels motivated (by self, an employer, a physician) but is still unable to overcome behavioral inertia? The most common response is to create a system of “motivation” and reward. Oops, there rises the danger of the extrinsic reward undermining intrinsic motivation, which is exactly the motivation we want to encourage. In a 2010 paper by Elbrys, “Designing Behavioral Change Programs to Initiate and Sustain Engagement,” they propose what I believe is a very valid description for reward. “Rewards should maximize the recipient’s sense of autonomy and competence.”
In the late 1980″s I wrote a manual for Wilson (the tennis ball company) called, ‘The Game is Life.” It was based upon the power of play and how/why we could emulate exactly what children do while at play for our own enjoyment of game, sport and activity.  Perhaps in our laser-focused quest to “reduce the obesity crisis” via exercise we have squeezed every ounce of play out of the endeavor.  How many of our target populations feel a relatedness or sense of belonging to the tribes, crowds and social networks happily playing at physical activity, sport and fitness pursuits?  If we create a sense of team, relatedness and belonging for our “least active,” will they make the choice to “play the game” for a longer time period? Can we guide long term engagement by creating play opportunity first and motivation/rewards as a second tier bonus?
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