For many people, future health benefits may just be too intangible and speculative to overcome disinterest and take up walking, running, swimming, cycling or working out in the gym. What really keeps dedicated exercisers going, even in the face of myriad obstacles, is much more real.
There are some supplementary benefits, in addition to the obvious health benefits, to regular exercise. At 89, John visits the gym almost daily, where he has a big group of gym buddies, with whom he shares books, magazines and conversation. His wife still works full time but makes it to the gym about five times a week; usually it is a gym ‘date’ with him. They stride along on treadmills next to each other and talk about the day’s events while they watch National Geographic. These benefits are actually the core reasons that keep these people going.
We have misbranded health behaviors such as exercise. The ‘health’ and ‘weight-loss’ brand of exercise doesn’t create desire in people to exercise on a daily basis. It makes the behaviors feel like a chore and a ‘should,’ which undercuts our desire to do them. It’s like telling young children, “Eat your vegetables; they’re good for you,” which almost never accomplishes the desired goal. We’ve based our promotion of exercise on a medical and logical model, and people don’t necessarily behave in a logical manner.
We’ve made exercise feel like a chore to most people, not like a gift we give ourselves. Let’s borrow the motivational approach used by commercial marketers, “an emotional hook that creates positive, meaningful expectations of how exercise can enhance people’s lives, a way to feel better.” Exercise is such a wonder drug — there’s got to be something exercise can do to improve the lives of virtually everyone. So many non-health benefits keep people exercising every day that for sure life would be greatly diminished without them. When two to five people walk for an hour every morning and chat about their days, share their thoughts and problems, seek and offer advice, bolster sagging spirits, provide logistical support, alert one another to coming cultural events, discuss the news, books, articles and what-have-you. No matter how awful each one may feel when getting up in the morning, there’s always that good feeling after that walk. And so they would always do it, come rain, shine or blizzard.
Forming or joining an exercise group creates a sounding board for any and all problems, providing both emotional and practical support when needed. The group could introduce you to wonderful activities — museum and gallery shows, concerts and operas, movies and books — you might have otherwise missed. They could all be there when a family crisis struck, offering to make meals, house visitors, run errands, go grocery shopping, pick up grandsons from school, do whatever they can farm out to others to ease the burden.
You could lunch together almost every month, celebrate birthdays together, check on one another if someone fails to attend a session or two, even raise money for a beloved staff member who lost her job in the recession. They could give you the opportunity to talk about events, politics, sports and other topics of mutual interest that you would otherwise have no chance to squeeze into your very busy life.
Exercise can help people sleep better and reduce stress, as well as have a good time with a friend. Almost anything can get people to start exercising. The challenge is to get them hooked on it so that they keep going. We need to rebrand exercise as something we can enjoy, something that really feels good to do.