October 11, 2015

How To Make Exercise Fun

As I have thought about how to change human behavior to get people to do healthier things, I remember the 1984 movie The Karate Kid. In that movie, the lead character, Daniel LaRusso, played by Ralph Macchio, finds a master teacher, Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita. He believes that he is going to receive conventional instruction on how to be a karate black belt. Instead, he gets assigned one chore after another, such as painting fences and waxing cars. It is only after he is doing these chores for a while that he realizes that each task is also serving to strengthen him for karate. He develops his capabilities while doing something else.

I believe that the only way we will change societal behaviors and get people to do things which make them healthier is to make healthy activity unconscious and fun. For example, on the web site Thefuntheory.com, there is a video which shows the building, installation, and use of a stairway adjacent to an escalator in what appears to be a Swedish train station. Because each step in the stairway looks like a big piano key and each one sounds a note as someone steps on it, the result is that stairway usage increases by 66%.

My wife and I used to live in New York City. Because it was such an interesting city in which to walk around, we walked more and had much less need to work out to keep our weight down, even though we also joined a fitness club. We had many enjoyable days walking through the park, shopping, watching the diverse people who walked and ran on New York streets, and going to and from cultural events on foot or by subway or bus. We probably walked several miles a day without realizing it, although I noticed that I needed to replace the heels and soles on my shoes far more frequently than when I moved up to Connecticut.

Too much of our exercise and fitness activity is supervised, structured and compartmentalized. This is certainly appropriate for people who are getting rehabilitated from an injury, or who are engaged in potentially dangerous high-intensity exercise. However, there needs to be a supplementary focus on getting people to engage in exercise in the ordinary course of their daily lives, and to make that exercise a fun experience.