The benefits of keeping active are not surprising, nor are the risks if we fail to stay moving. So why are we sitting still so much? Behavioural science points to a few reasons why our human nature may be working against us by hindering our motivation to get off of our chairs and get active.
Creatures of habit
First, we may be living sedentary lives out of habit. Research found that “adults in the workplace may sit for long periods out of habit, expectations and ‘necessity’ rather than conscious intentions”. Habitual behaviour feels automatic, even mindless, and can be very efficient - spending mental energy to make each and every decision would be tiring. However, the automaticity of our habits can work against us if the habitual behaviour is something we’d like to change.
We generally have to plan our moderate and vigorous activity, for example bringing gym clothes to the office, booking a dance class, or finding a babysitter. But we do not need to plan our sedentary behaviour such as sitting at work or in the car, standing on public transportation, lying on the sofa, watching TV, etc, which is often done without thinking and out of habit.
That means that not only does being active require much more physical effort than being sedentary, but also, it requires more cognitive effort.
Feeling the pain (before the gain)
This is important because this double-dose of effort happens upfront, right now, in the present, whereas the reward for this effort only accrues in the future. And in general we feel more compelled to act on things which are psychologically closer to us – that is, things which are happening to us (over someone else, or even over our future-self), right now, in our immediate environment, and which are clear or certain (versus things which are abstract or ambiguous). In the case of exercise, the effort is psychologically closer than the reward, so we may be tempted to avoid the effort more so than we are motivated to earn the reward.
Could our sedentary behaviour also be linked to what behavioural scientists call an ‘empathy gap’? Empathy gaps simply mean that we have a hard time predicting what we will want to do in other situations; we are poor at forecasting our future preferences. When we are not exercising - which is most of the time for most of us- it might be hard to imagine that we will actually feel good after a hard workout or a brisk walk, and may therefore feel less inclined to get up and start moving. It is as if our ‘pre-workout self’ finds it hard to empathise with our virtuous ‘post-workout self’.
The NHS guidelines for physical activity are that adults should get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, such as walking, swimming, playing tennis, flat cycling, or even pushing a lawn mower. But how often do we think of anything over an hour in terms of minutes?
So a less critical, but nonetheless interesting point is that the recommendation of 150 minutes per week is not very motivating when phrased in that way. It sounds like a lot of time, and because we don’t often think of timeframes beyond an hour in units of minutes, the recommendation seems more abstract.
This matters because, as discussed above, we are less likely to act on information that is abstract because it seems psychologically distant from us. A way around this could be to reframe the recommendations into something more concrete and easier to visualise in our mind’s eye.
Given these points, what can be done to get moving more frequently? For a start, simply reframing 150 minutes as 2.5 hours per week, or ½ hour every weekday, might help. By chunking the recommendation, it seems much easier to imagine how to achieve that goal, for example, by using a different bus stop, doing a lap around the neighbourhood on a lunch break, or attending an exercise class at the gym.
To change habits, we can avoid the triggers to habitual behaviour. If sitting on the sofa is the trigger to watch TV, try putting on running shoes before even sitting down. To increase empathy with our post- workout self, a simple photo might help: a smiling post-workout selfie may remind us of how good we will feel after a good dose of exercise.
The broader point is that whatever the practical technique used, understanding the underlying psychological factors that might be dampening our resolve to enjoy more exercise is key to help us to change our ways.
Find out more about why we struggle with healthy behaviours (and what to do about it)
Continue reading the next blog in the series Why we eat too much, and how to stop
This article is an edited excerpt from our report 'Easier said than done'