Cracking the Exercise Motivation Code: Gains vs Losses


In an effort to really dig into the topic of motivation and how to increase it in the behavioral model for exercise, we at Fit After Fifty like to address some common questions and issues in this ongoing series: “Cracking the Exercise Motivation Code”.  Your input, as always, is very welcome. We all learn from the knowledge and experiences of the collective whole. So go ahead and comment at the end of the article!

Which do you think is generally the more effective motivator–emphasizing the benefits of exercise or the harmful effects from not exercising?

Good question.

Have you every heard someone say: “So what if I don’t exercise..what’s the worst thing that could happen?”  If you were to pop on your psychology professor hat, you would identify this as a loss aversion perspective: “What do I have to lose in this scenario?” Rather than, “What do I have to gain?”  According to scientists Tversky and Kahneman in 1991,  “The central assumption of the theory is that losses and disadvantages have greater impact on preferences than gains and advantages.”

Richard Thaler’s book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happinessshows examples of this theory when it comes to money.  People were often more inclined to take action to avoid losing $100 vs. gaining $200. Interesting. So does that mean that people are more inclined to exercise if they think they might “lose something” (that’s not lbs) if they don’t exercise?  Perhaps initially this is an effective motivator. The most common example is probably hearing the doctor give a poor forecast if inactivity continues–“You will lose your ability to do basic, everyday movements if you don’t start exercising.” This may be just the “lose something” motivation to catalyze action. However, a few weeks later, will this motivation still have the same effect? Consider the long-term, sustainable motivator.

Dr. Michelle Segar, PHD, MPH, is a behavioral sustainability & motivation scientist. Here’s what she had to say about it:

From a sustainable behavior and human flourishing perspective, helping individuals link being physically active to the what they most care about achieving everyday would have better results than communicating about what they will lose if they remain inactive. Why? Because people have to feel deeply invested about something in order to keep it up in today’s hectic life.

What do you think? What have you found to be a successful, long-term motivator?

1 reply
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