Why can't the fitness industry gain more ground against inactivity? It could be because we're promoting effort at the expense of enjoyment.
Why don't people move more? It might be that they're lazy, but any business expert will tell you that if a product doesn't sell, the problem isn't necessarily with the buyer. What if our industry's approach is the reason so many people are inactive?
The fitness industry has done plenty to inspire people to get moving, but statistics suggest we have a lot of work to do: 80% of Americans do not meet recommended physical activity levels, and 45% are not active enough to improve their health (PAC 2013). Access to exercise facilities seems to be plentiful (outside of rural areas): In 2015, there were 36,180 health clubs/fitness centers in the United States alone (Statista 2015). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 279,100 fitness trainers and instructors were working in 2014 (BLS 2015). And information on the importance of physical activity is readily available; media outlets often devote significant segments of their content to exercise promotion.
This article explores the science of movement and cites experts who know what gets people to start—and stay—moving. It also argues that it's time to rethink the way we promote fitness and exercise.
Why People Aren't Moving
People embrace leisure activities for pleasure, relaxation or stress reduction. Conversely, going to the doctor or dentist for a checkup ranks low on their list of enjoyable activities. Unfortunately, loads of people feel the same way about going to the gym, says psychologist Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, director of the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan.
"The core issue is that in our society, our prescription/lecturing perspective has turned exercise into a chore," says Segar, author of No Sweat! How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (AMACOM 2015). "While there are some converts, the vast majority of people don't exercise, and the reason they don't is because we have alienated them by limiting its purpose in their lives."
The trouble is that we promote exercise and movement mostly as a way to fix a "problem," such as weight gain or a health condition. When an activity becomes a chore or a "have-to-do," motivation to participate diminishes, Segar says.
"The reality is we all have limited leisure time," she adds. "So what do you think is going to get picked during that time? You're going to choose the thing that helps you relax and makes you feel good."
That puts exercise low in the rankings of things people want to do in their free time (Poobalan et al. 2012).
Biomechanist Katy Bowman, MS, author of Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement (Propriometrics Press 2014) and Movement Matters (Propriometrics Press 2016), argues that modern exercises are a turnoff because they do not feel natural.
"All-day movement—walking, running, dancing, squatting, climbing, playing, hiking and doing chores (cleaning, gardening, gathering, raking), all within a close-knit community—is natural to humans," says Bowman, founder of Nutritious Movement™. "Gym exercise, I would argue, is not. Traditional training programs require exercise to occur outside of our regular life. They require extra money, special outfits and shoes, arrangements for someone to watch our children, and an instructor or trainer."
It's a tall order to ask someone to allocate time and money to such pursuits, Bowman believes. "Gyms and training programs work for a particular culture—those whose life (aka their friends or their job) is located within the gym. But for everyone else, the requirements to attend a gym or program serve as barriers to movement—something that's challenging for people who work inside the gym culture to grasp."
Also, working out in gyms—with fitness enthusiasts—can intimidate people who are overweight and inactive. Many have negative perceptions of gym sales staff . Studies show that people know the health risks of being overweight, yet that information isn't motivating enough to overcome the fear of gyms and exercise (Miller & Miller 2010; Vartanian & Shaprow 2008).
How Most People Perceive Exercise
One standard explanation for why people avoid exercise is they don't enjoy it. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, can't make that leap.
"I don't buy into the premise that everybody finds movement uncomfortable and miserable," she says. "Most people would experience enjoyment in moving their bodies if they were able to find the right movement for them, whether that's walking or sports or dancing or tai chi."
McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress (Avery 2015), contends that people avoid exercise because of how it's presented.
"Exercise is almost always [recommended] in the context of starting from a place of shame, self-criticism, inadequacy. There's something wrong with your body, and you should look a different way or be a different person, and exercise is the thing that will fix you," she says. "When someone enters into any activity from this point of view, it takes a lot of the intrinsic joy out of that activity and creates a context for people to experience negative emotions and to interpret sensations of exercise in a negative way."
Mike Fitch, creator of Animal Flow®, agrees. He says we are at an interesting intersection in the industry, where there is more space than ever for "alternative" movement options, but most people are uninspired by the tactics commonly used to motivate them.
"You see the memes that say, 'You don't want it bad enough,' with the militant approach, and it's off -putting," he says. "That works for some, but there are a lot of people whose experience with exercise has made them feel unsuccessful, and they aren't going to want to get back into it."
U.K.-based Dan Edwardes, creator of Parkour Generations, says the term "exercise" can be off-putting to many people. "'Exercise' invokes ideas of hard work, of mindless routine, of sweating on a bike or a track because you feel you 'have to,' or as a response to eating too much," he says. "The word can be loaded in our modern societies."
Jade Teta, ND, co-founder of Metabolic Effect, argues that people have been alienated from exercise because they've been told there are only one or two ways to do it.
"Unfortunately, and I have been guilty of this too, we have spread a message that there's really only one way to do things, and it's constantly changing. High-intensity training used to be a must. Then it was that women have to lift weights. Now, everyone needs to be doing barbell training."
These approaches appeal to the converted, he says, but they can intimidate everybody else. "People stick with something when they feel successful right away. Unfortunately, we tend to make things too tough for most people, and they rarely ever feel successful."
Segar agrees. "If people are exercising to control their weight and control their health, those of us prescribing exercise have prescribed it in doses to optimize those outcomes," she says. While those doses might fast-track results, they are often too intense and may trigger feelings of displeasure (Ekkekakis, Hall & Petruzzello 2008).
"In general, when people exercise beyond ventilatory threshold, their displeasure goes up," she explains. "This isn't true for everyone. There are people who love to kill themselves when they exercise. But I think the majority of people don't feel good when they exercise that way, and the research clearly shows that people avoid things that make them feel bad. If we prescribe that kind of exercise, then we're setting people up to walk away."
[Editor's note: Licensed health professionals prescribe exercise; fitness professionals design programs and tailor them to clients' goals.]
Why Body Change And Health Improvements Do Not Motivate
People exercise primarily to change their bodies and address health concerns (Kilpatrick, Hebert & Bartholomew 2005; Strelan, Mehaff ey & Tiggemann 2003; Aaltonen et al. 2014). But these goals rarely work in the long term, says Segar.
"We've been promoting exercise for distant goals, whether it's 2 months of weight loss or 15 years of avoiding type 2 diabetes," Segar says. "But the reality is that people make choices about what's going to influence them today and what's going to make them feel better today."
A 2012 review of 66 studies on this topic supports Segar. The review found a significant association between extrinsic goals—like body- or health-related improvements—and lower rates of exercise participation (Teixeira 2012). By contrast, a study led by Segar herself showed that women who selected quality of life as their primary motivator for exercise were more adherent than others who assigned high values to healthy-aging or current-health goals (Segar, Eccles & Richardson 2011).
"While important, pursuing distant benefits from exercise—such as health promotion, disease prevention and longevity—might not be as compelling to busy individuals as their other daily priorities and responsibilities," says Segar.
McGonigal laments a narrow-minded focus on the purpose of exercise and movement. "I feel it's almost a crime the way exercise has been linked to the one thing it doesn't reliably do, and that's [bringing about] weight loss," she says.
According to a 9-year study of 278,982 obese people in the U.K., published in 2015, only 1 in 8 men and 1 in 7 women is likely to achieve at least a 5% weight loss in a year. The probability of someone with "simple obesity" attaining a normal weight is 1 in 210 for men and 1 in 124 for women. Those odds skyrocket for morbidly obese individuals (Fildes et al. 2015).
"In other cultures, you move to be happy; you move to celebrate and connect with family," says McGonigal. "Why on earth would we take something that has been so linked with hedonic joy and social joy and meaning, and link it to something that is stigmatizing and depressing, like weight loss?"
McGonigal also points out that people with body-change goals are creating a fitness endpoint: If weight loss is the primary goal, then there's no motivation to move once that goal is achieved.
Another cause of low participation may be fear-based exercise promotion. We're consistently bombarded with threats about how lack of movement increases disease risk and can hasten death. But this kind of messaging rarely works. And if fear does motivate some people at first, the likelihood that they will eventually quit is quite high (Soames Job 1988; Lippke, Ziegelmann & Schwarzer 2004; Ruiter, Abraham & Kok 2001).
Trying to change people by scaring them will almost always have the opposite effect, explains Teta. "This is why people who are told that cigarettes kill don't stop smoking them. These kinds of threats rarely motivate people."
Segar believes linking fear with physical activity is counterproductive if we aim to create a positive movement experience. "[This tactic] does get people to spend their money," she says. "What it doesn't do is help people develop a value for physical activity that reflects who they are as people and what matters most in their daily lives and what they have to succeed at in their daily lives."
Changing How We Talk About Exercise
Getting people to move more begins with shifting the fitness conversation from tomorrow's gains to today's joy, say our experts.
"The way we talk about exercise has to change in order for people to understand that exercise doesn't have to be that [chore] where you move things from point A to point B or spend 𝓍 amount of time on the treadmill," Fitch suggests.
If we work hard to help the public understand the immediate benefits of regular movement, says McGonigal, then we increase the chances that everyone will become more active. These six tips suggest how to make that happen:
1. Emphasize Celebration
"I train teachers and trainers to make sure celebration is part of the end of every workout," says McGonigal. "The goal is to have people pay attention to how they feel, describe it in a word, think about how they feel about themselves, or do something to create an emotional high at the end of class. Make sure you do something at the end or the beginning that signals that this could have a powerful effect on your mood. This is a way we can get people to really amplify the joy of movement."
2. Stop Selling Fear, Start Being Inclusive
"What do smart marketers do?" asks Segar. "Think about Apple. They don't promote things that make people afraid or make them feel bad about themselves. They want repeat customers. They don't want one-time buyers.
"Apple wants people to buy the iPad and use it and use it and buy the next upgrade. And to [make that happen], they design the experience and market that experience and the purpose in a way that is going to let people live, realize themselves and enjoy themselves. That's how good marketers do it if they want people to keep coming back."
McGonigal says promoting fitness with images of trim, fit bodies sends the wrong message. For people to feel comfortable engaging in an activity or joining a gym, they need to see themselves in the imagery. Furthermore, she says, inclusive marketing emphasizes experience over before-and-after pictures.
3. Turn Success Stories Into Mentors
As McGonigal says, a goal like weight loss loses its ability to motivate once people lose the weight. To keep them engaged after they've met their goals, give them an even bigger purpose, she advises. "If you look at the history of behavior change in organizations like AA, the way you keep people maintaining their own success is you turn them into mentors and coaches and role models for others. It has to be about something bigger than themselves."
4. Give People Control
Success variables improve when people get to choose their movements (Silva et al. 2010).
"We need to ask people to move in ways that will feel good to them, that will give them the experiences they're seeking in their lives—whether it's joy, stress reduction, connection with others," Segar advises.
Perceived competence and mastery are linked with feelings of success and continued involvement (Moreno et al. 2010). Yet Teta says we focus too much on offering insurmountable challenges in the hopes that they will motivate people to move more.
"The first exposure has to be a positive experience, and we rarely offer that. We think that because something—like a hardcore workout—is a positive experience for us, it will be positive for everyone else. That's not how it works."
For example, say you ask a group of people to run a mile. Inevitably, some will have stress and confidence issues. But if you tell them they can cover that mile any way they want—walk, run or a combination of both—you have given them control, and the enjoyment factor increases, says Teta.
5. Become Activity Partners, Provide Movement Menus
As the saying goes, "Variety is the spice of life." And when it comes to movement, researchers have found that providing options leads to positive associations with exercise (Sylvester et al. 2014).
"What we want to do is teach people that there's a movement menu just like there's a food menu," says Segar. "It includes all the ways in which, immediately, physical activity is going to feel good to do, and it also offers a variety of ways to move. If we can help people understand a more holistic picture of fitness that includes doing things outside and inside the gym, we can help them feel successful and we can be their primary activity partner."
6. Promote Community
Fitch believes he's had significant success with Animal Flow because it fosters a community where people can explore movement comfortably. He finds that social environments offer a great opportunity to create an entry point for people with a negative perception of exercise.
"Coordinate workouts, sessions or something you can invite people to and see if they like it," he suggests. "But don't do it with the intention of getting them to sign up for a 24-pack. That's a tough message to sell—to get fit pros to stop worrying about just money if what we truly want to do is help other people. Creating a scenario where people can experience what we have to offer that's not intimidating and not trying to lock them into some sort of sales pitch—that's something that will chip away at what's keeping people disconnected."
Help People Move For The Fun Of It
"In our industry, the greater goal is to get other people healthy," says Fitch. "That doesn't mean we should only want to help the people who give us their credit card. Maybe it's too grandiose of a hope, but [reaching people who need to get healthy has] always been a major driving force for me. We're in a bad place with our health, so what can we do to inspire other people?"
What we can do, says McGonigal, is reinforce the intrinsic joy that every person is capable of experiencing.
"It is about orienting people's attention to the myriad benefits of exercise that transcend weight loss and transcend avoiding a heart attack. It's about paying attention to how you feel after you stretch and how you feel when you put a song on your phone and dance in your living room with your kids for 3 minutes. How did you feel before, and how do you feel afterward? We might know as experts that it's important to move a lot. But this might not be the message that gets communicated to the public. Because that message is, 'You're not doing enough; it's never enough.' If we want people to be active on a regular basis, then we need to have them attend to the immediate payoff ."