How our behaviour can influence our motivation to exercise

Behavioural economics expert Dr Craig Nossel is the CEO of Carenomics, a behavioural economics consultancy. Previously he was the Head of Vitality Wellness, one of the largest global wellness businesses.

In this article, Dr Nossel provides an insight into how we can use our behaviour to increase our physical activity.

Physical activity today

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed almost every aspect of our lives, seemingly overnight.

And while technology has helped us stay in touch and connected, it has also contributed to a lifestyle where many of us already spend too many hours sitting and lying down – either working at our desks, watching TV shows, or engaging on social media platforms. This huge increase in screen time is also associated with increased sedentary behaviour.

It is certainly no surprise that physical inactivity has been exacerbated during this time. ‘Incidental activity’, which is the accumulation of activities throughout the day, have been drastically reduced with the vast majority of us staying at home.

Even though we may see more people out on suburban streets walking and cycling, and many people are trying new types of physical activity at home, 44 per cent of us are doing less physical activity overall.

Behavioural strategies

Maintaining an exercise routine is generally hard, but harder still during times of stress. However, there are ways to counteract our tendency to avoid exercise. We can develop subtle behavioural changes, which can ‘nudge’ people in a certain direction.

These three key principles may help you stick to that exercise regime and help maintain your mental and physical health.

1. Commitment bias

This is the tendency for us to ‘be consistent’ with what we have already done or said we will do in the past, especially in public. 

Planning and goal-setting can be very effective when it comes to exercise. Commit to working out on a specific day at a specific time. “Every Tuesday at 8am” is much more effective than “sometime next week”. You can also add this session to your calendar, the pre-commitment of having the workout scheduled can make all the difference on following through or not.

For added success, share this commitment with friends and family or even on social media channels. You are less likely to fail if you feel accountable not only to yourself but to others as well.

2. Incentives

An incentive motivates us to act and can be effective in encouraging behaviour change. There are two types of incentives: intrinsic (such as achievement, recognition, and reciprocity) and extrinsic (such as money, points, and vouchers).

If you are struggling to exercise, try incentivising yourself with an extrinsic reward. Maybe you can only watch that next Netflix episode if you go for a 30-minute run, or you can get yourself that morning cup of coffee if you walk the dogs.

However, don’t underestimate intrinsic incentives. Start a leaderboard with your family to see who can achieve the most ‘active days’ or join social sharing exercise apps like Strava to receive recognition badges for completing certain exercise goals.

3. Attentional bias

This is the tendency for our perception to be affected by our recurring thoughts. We can use the attentional bias to our advantage by placing visual cues around the house, to prompt us to think of exercise and be more active.

Try putting some exercise equipment out, or make a sign that reminds you to perform basic movements, such as “calf raises” by the stairs, “shoulder dips” by your chairs, or “push-ups” by your kitchen bench. By making everyday items act as reminders for exercise, we are more likely to be more active.

Physical activity and health

The impact of physical inactivity cannot be understated. We know that insufficient physical activity is a key risk factor for non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Physical activity also plays a vital role when it comes to the normal functioning of our immune system, as well as our overall mental wellbeing. Exercise has been shown to have a positive direct effect on the cells and molecules of the immune system and can counter the negative effects of isolation and confinement stress on various aspects of immunity.

Despite the disruptions brought on by COVID-19, these effective and simple nudges can help to ensure we stay active. Given the myriad of benefits associated with exercise, try to use these principles to get off the couch and get moving.