A Pill To Eliminate The Need For Exercise? Say It Ain’t So!
A recent report published online highlighted a study that demonstrated a pill could eliminate the need for exercise in laboratory rats. What disturbed me most about the story was that we would want to eliminate the need for exercise. We try to eliminate things we find unpleasant.
This is the crux of the problem. For most, exercise is not viewed as something that is fun. Exercise is done because we are trying to avoid negative consequences of not exercising that have been made very public over the past decades. Much has been written in the lay and medical press highlighting the positive impact regular exercise has on weight management, heart health, bone health, sleep, and as a treatment for drug addiction, depression, and anxiety. To understand the attitude toward exercise requires an understanding of what motivates behavior. Behavioral science has demonstrated that the most powerful shaper of behavior is reward. If it feels good, we are very likely to repeat a behavior.
The next most powerful shaper of behavior is something called negative reinforcement. Simply put, this is a behavior that takes away a painful stimulus. An example would be taking an aspirin for a headache, or pulling your hand from a hot stove. No reward for either of these, but it does stop something that feels bad. The weakest shaper of behavior is punishment. Evaluating the long-term effects of our criminal justice system highlights this reality. If we really want to reinforce a behavior, make it feel good, or at least make people believe it will make them feel good. When it comes to exercise, once enjoyment is experienced, it does not take much to continue the activity. A fundamental problem with exercise is that a punishment model or negative reinforcement is most commonly associated with it: If you don’t exercise you’ll get fat, have heart disease or live an unhealthy life.
We need to rethink, and repackage, the role of exercise. The NFL has done a nice job in its “Play 60” campaign to encourage kids to exercise daily. Its public service announcements (PSAs) show the kids having fun and enjoying themselves. The PSAs focus on the importance of daily exercise, but show play to the reward strategy.
Changing adult behavior will require a similar strategy. Virtually all adults know they should get off their tush, but the motivation is too often lacking. Conversely, I doubt we’ll ever see a study to create a pill to eliminate the need for sex. Mother Nature knows how to reinforce a behavior vital to the species survival. Maybe we should rename it “sexercise”?
Whatever we call it, it’s time to change our approach and focus on the fun of exercise, not the penalties for not staying active.