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Using behavioral sciences to teach fitness: A (sometimes unwilling) student’s perspective

Julie Perng's picture

 U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Nathan L. MaysonetEvery Monday and Wednesday afternoon, sometime between two and three, the email arrives. There’s no content, only a subject line inviting me to tomorrow morning’s cycling class.

I’m not one to enjoy spinning. But thanks to Arben Gjino, the originator of these emails, I participate in the cruel exercise approximately 150% more than I would have in an Arben-less world. So how did this Albanian-born, former volleyball Coach get me to ride time and time again alongside a dedicated group of early morning spinning enthusiasts?

Over time, I have pieced together his secret. What helps Arben – and his students – is the utilization of concepts from psychology. In particular, he uses concepts such as being non-discriminatory, salient nudges, making the classes fun and personal, and role-modeling. As a member of the World Bank’s behavioral sciences team, which applies psychology to international development projects, I especially appreciate the use of these techniques being used on – and for - me.

Being non-discriminatory

We are a group of fit and non-fit students pushing ourselves in various degrees, and Arben welcomes us all. We all feel invited, like we can succeed at the goals we’ve set out for ourselves.

Non-discrimination sounds like an obvious trait that teachers should have. However, human beings are naturally biased, and these biases can lead to us implicitly discriminating against others. For example, experiments played on my fellow international development professionals found that we are prone to a variety of biases which likely have an impact on our work. The best thing to do is to recognize this fact, and to take measures to keep the biases in check.

Using salient reminders

Arben’s emails are timely and salient, or noticeable. They serve a couple of functions: first of all, to remind us to attend, and second, to keep the important fact that there is an opportunity to spin in our heads as we’re making plans for the next morning.

It sounds simple, but it works – and that’s why we often see, receive, and use variations of these reminders everywhere in our lives. In the World Bank’s Community Connections Campaign, people who received salient reminders sent at just the right time were more likely to donate than people who did not.

Making the experience fun

At any one time, the music in Arben’s class may remind me of a Jazzercize class, a European club, and/or a karaoke bar. The atmosphere is social and fun, with constant interactions and encouragement between students, facilitated in part by Arben’s treatment of the class as members of a team.

No pain, no gain? It’s always good to push yourself that much more, but few people are going to willingly and continuously go to events or activities which are good for them but are boring or torturous. In my field, we try to deliver important messages about health and social issues in an entertaining way – sometimes in the form of movies, plays, and vignettes (see this study by Abhijit Banerjee, Eliana La Ferrara, and Victor Orozco for an example in Nigeria using an MTV show). This helps ensure that the communication is received by the target groups.

 Making it personal

“Julie, this song is for you!” Every song in Arben’s class is dedicated to someone – sometimes the choice is made arbitrarily, and sometimes our name is called out when it looks like we could try harder. As soon as I hear that phrase, I’m that much more alert. The spotlight is on me, and as such, it would behoove me to make sure that I’m working hard. Certainly, there’s no stopping or resting for the next three minutes.

If you’ve ever paid closer attention to an email when it’s using your name, you understand the feeling. Benjamin Castleman and Lindsay Page capitalized on this and sent students weekly, personalized text messages to help connect them with resources and deadlines – and increased their chances of enrolling in college.

Providing a role model

Arben is the definition of fit – at 59-years-old, he exercises 6 days a week, and routinely burns 800-900 calories per spin class. This in itself is inspirational, but he shows us that he, too, works for it. His exclamations of suffering (real or not) offer me a small source of companionship in my fitness battle.

We are heavily influenced by who communicates to us when receiving and utilizing information or resources. This was shown in a study in Nicaragua, showing that women receiving a cash transfer, cash transfer plus scholarship, or business grant did better in investing in children and improving incomes, but especially so when role model leaders living nearby received a grant. These leaders presumably talked to and motivated their neighbor

Using psychology on yourself in your fitness goals

Not everyone has an Arben in their life, nor the ability to continuously take fitness classes. Luckily, behavioral science is an easy tool to use.  First of all, goal-setting is key: Make a realistic commitment (Julian Jamison, an ultra-marathoner, signs up for marathons months in advance; Muhammad Ali used visualization when he was 15-years-old; and these researchers find strong employment impacts from “plan-making” in South Africa), and hold yourself accountable with social media or behavioral apps like stickK. Try combining working out with friends or a group, or in conjunction with a fun activity, like a TV show. And finally, reward yourself! Whether it’s imagining a happy proclamation of “Excellent!” from Arben or enjoying a luxurious break, your body and mind (likely tired after all that psychological experimentation) deserve it.

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