New Research: Compelling Reasons to Exercise

Oct 20, 2011

Fitness professionals: Do you market your services by emphasizing the long-term health benefits of physical activity? If so, you’re not alone. Healthcare, business and public-health professionals have presumed that promoting the health and longevity benefits of exercise will motivate people to get moving.

As it turns out, a different message might be more effective. A new University of Michigan (U-M) study has found that the most convincing exercise messages focus on immediate benefits that enhance daily quality of life.

"The study showed that what an individual [believes to be] important does not necessarily translate into behavior," said Michelle Segar, research investigator for the U-M Institute for Research on Women and Gender. "While people say they value health and healthy aging, those distant benefits don't make exercise compelling enough to fit into their busy lives."

"Promoting exercise for health is logical, but people's daily decisions are more often connected to emotion than logic," Segar said. "A more effective 'hook' is to rebrand exercise to emphasize the immediate benefits that enrich daily living, such as stress reduction and increased vitality."

Individuals may also appreciate the subsequent benefits that make exercise more personally meaningful, such as being a patient parent, enjoying life, being creative and having focus at work, she says.

"By shifting our model from medicine to marketing, we can improve how we 'sell' exercise to the public by using principles like branding," Segar said. Messages about immediate rewards–for example, "Move more, get energy"—may motivate busy individuals better than messages that center on distant and abstract benefits—"Move more, get healthy," for example.

Segar studied responses from 226 women aged 40–60 who worked full-time. They completed three surveys during a yearlong period. Respondents were asked about their exercise goals and participation; how much they valued their goals; their body mass index; and their social support. This study reinforces other research showing that the reasons why people start exercising influence their motivation and adherence.

Segar recommends four steps to rebrand exercise and to improve engagement and participation:

  • Assess the specific exercise benefits you have been promoting.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of these motives to engage and motivate ongoing participation.
  • Ask your target population what values and experiences they most care about achieving in their daily life that exercise benefits would impact, such as reduced stress and improved mood.
  • Develop new messaging that addresses these valued end points.

These research findings appeared in the August 31 issue of The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

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