Most individuals are aware of what steps they need to take in order to improve their health. Recent research conducted out of the University of Michigan (Rebranding Exercise: Closing the Gap Between Values and Behavior) finds that messages that encourage individuals to focus on immediate quality of life improvements tend to perform better promoting healthy behavior change than messages that encourage individuals to focus on making changes that contribute to their overall longevity. The thought is that this holds true because, in general, individuals tend to have difficulty making changes that have delayed or abstract rewards. It is easier for us to make changes that produce more timely rewards.
Physical exercise programs typically have both delayed and immediate benefits. Some of the long-term benefits include a decreased risk of serious disease and longer life. Some of the immediate benefits include increased feeling of well-being, decreased stress and improved sleep.
This study authored by Michelle Segar, Jacquelynne Eccles and Caroline Richardson suggests that marketers trying to get individuals to exercise more regularly might have better luck if they emphasize exercise’s ability to decrease stress and elevate mood. Immediate, concrete changes like reduced stress and increased mood are easy for most individuals to visualize, focus on and work towards.
The study’s utility transcends simply being applicable to exercise promotion. All positive lifestyle changes are more likely to occur if the focus is on noticeable short-term benefits rather than abstract, long-term benefits. An example would be a campaign promoting healthy eating habits. The campaign is more likely to be successful if the focus is on how healthy diet promotes increased energy than a focus on the long-term benefits healthy eating has on cardiovascular health. Human beings are not always logical, many of us suffer from the folly of instant gratification.
Organizations seeking to design more effective exercise programs should first spend some time evaluating the probable effectiveness of their messaging. Organizations that have been focusing on messaging that touts the long-term health benefits of exercise – instead of the immediate benefits – may want to consider reformulating the way the value of exercise is communicated to their employees. The University of Michigan study suggests that the more timely and relevant the exercise-related reward is perceived, the more likely it is that members of the target population will make positive changes.
Commenting on her study Michelle Segar suggests that while people claim to be motivated by the possibility of increased long-term health, the appeal of long-term health gains is rarely strong enough to cause lasting behavioral change. Wellness promoters should take note that some benefits of exercise many not be compelling enough to be an effective motivator for healthy behavior change amongst a wide audience.
These findings are not just for marketers and health promoters. Individuals looking to adopt new positive behaviors should spend some time asking themselves about what really motivates them, and perhaps break large health goals into smaller milestones that have appealing, short-term benefits. Effective behavior change is possible; it just has to stem from the right kind of tailored personal motivation. As more research is done on the effectiveness of different forms of motivation and motivational messages, individuals and groups will be better able to promote effective behavioral change.