From Fear to Fun in Fitness

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Does Fear and Negative Reinforcement Have a Place in Fitness? Let’s find out…Below are three questions I was asked recently by a reporter as well as the transcript of my replies. 

Q: Why is that being scared of a negative outcome isn’t enough to spur people to action? I’m thinking of people who need to lose weight to have potentially life-saving surgery or to slow the progression of a deadly disease. Why is “you could die from this” not enough?

It’s all about timelines.  “You could die from this” usually only motivates successfully if we add “…now” to the end of the sentence!  Imagine someone who claims they “can’t run” who finds themself in a building that catches on fire.  They did not suddenly discover or obtain a magical ability to run.  There’s a reason we have the expression “light a fire under someone.”

Our brains are designed to prioritize immediate threats and opportunities over long-term ones.  In the realm of lifestyle choices leading to healthful or unhealthful outcomes, the timeline is typically too long on the negatives. Obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. will all kill you at some “far off” later date.

Q: Is there a place for “scare tactics” in health coaching or personal training? Does that “dose of reality” work for some people or is it never appropriate? If it is appropriate, how would go about doing it in a way that doesn’t terrify your client and actually helps them in the long run?

Of course there is a place for it. Because for some people it works. As practitioners, fitness professionals need to use what works.  In a particular example, I was once working with someone who we would classify as morbidly obese. He accepted that he was headed in the wrong direction and wanted to be in a better place. However, he was having trouble lining up enough consistent behaviors to make a consistent difference.  One day, I asked him to describe for me how his body felt, what his joints felt like, what his energy levels were like on a daily basis.  To paraphrase his response in a single word: “Terrible.”  I replied, “If you fail to begin making consistent positive health changes, today is as good as you will ever feel,” and proceeded to briefly paint a picture of what the future might be like for him to live in a body becoming what his was.

It was like a switch was flipped for him.  He knew what “bad” feels like. The notion of feeling “worse” every day was enough to motivate him to consistent action.

Q: How would you describe the difference between using scare tactics vs. explaining the benefits of physical activity or healthy eating? How are those conversations and the outcomes that grow from them different?

The benefits of physical activity are mostly meaningless to people the way we typically present them because they are not emotionally relevant. They are rational, boring, and abstract. “Physical activity can lower blood pressure, improve flexibility, enhance endurance…”  So what?  These are not what people derive meaning from in life.  Travel, having fun experiences with loved ones – these are the things that motivate us to live in a capable body. Not arbitrary and abstract fitness characteristics or biometrics.

Scare tactics can get you up and started to leave bad stuff behind.  Imagine a potential victim in a horror film.  The axe-murdering maniac bursts into the room, and the potential victim bolts for the door and takes off running into the woods.  For some reason, the victim often runs as fast as possible while consistently looking backward to see where the maniac is…and trips and falls. 

A better approach?  Start running once you see the axe- murdering maniac burst into the room.  But don’t look back!  Just run, looking toward safety and where you are going. 

Applying this to the realm of motivating physical activity.  A scare of imminent death or disability might get someone started, but we wouldn’t want to keep the focus there long-term.  Negative, extrinsic motivators can be very effective at initiating action, but they are terrible at sustaining it. After initiation of action, it’s time to shift focus to developing more positive, intrinsic motivators.  

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