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Taking the biscuit

20 November 2014
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When it comes to being more active, we all know what we should be doing but a growing number of us don’t seem capable of doing it. The latest figures on the amount of physical exercise we take as a nation are pretty alarming. Across England about 29% of people overall are classed as physically inactive, according a research report from UK Active which was widely publicised recently. To provide an international perspective, UK inactivity levels are double those of Germany and France and more than 20 per cent higher than those in the United States.

Faced with those figures, it is tempting to seek refuge in the biscuit tin, which is partly what got us into this position in the first place. The classic response to an issue like this is to debate the balance needed between carrot and stick, not unlike those we are currently engaged politically on around benefits and worklessness where the stick is very much in the ascendency.

From all the active lifestyle campaigns we have run in the past, we know that the stick has little effect in terms of creating sustainable, positive behaviour change, but it is not simply a case of creating a lovely, juicy carrot to get people off their backsides and more active. We can bring the horse to water, the real challenge is to get them coming back of their own accord day after day.

Rewards and incentives play a crucial role in overcoming the initial barriers to getting active, which are often based around fear, apathy and lack of confidence or motivation, but ultimately they can only be a stepping stone to helping people see the intrinsic value and benefit of being more active – the reward of the activity itself. You only need to engage a recent convert to a sport or form of exercise to experience the zeal and enthusiasm that has been unlocked by their genuine epiphany – “this is fun, I feel great, I wish I’d done this years ago!”.

The best rewards and incentives must complement and amplify the intrinsic benefits of the activity itself. This is demonstrated very effectively by the Vitality scheme which uses monetary incentives with commercial partners to encourage people to improve their own health, all underwritten by the promise of lower premiums on health insurance as a result. They are currently offering an initial £50 voucher to get people through the door but crucially that can only be spent with a partner in a way that will lead to improved health or increased physical activity. Once involved in the scheme however, the real rewards come from the community you become part of, with inspirational ambassadors like Jonny Wilkinson offering advice and guidance complemented by the inspiring stories and support of people just like you and me, with the ongoing offers and discounts offered by the partners helping to keep things ticking along.

And therein lies one of the key factors in creating a sustainable change, to a more active lifestyle sticking and becoming the norm. We are social creatures and benefit immensely from being part of a supportive and positive community. There is nothing new in that, it’s the reason why organisations like Weightwatchers have group weigh-ins, it is why people join sporting clubs or go to exercise classes. What is relatively new is how social networking has created a huge proliferation of these communities. Running is an area where you can see the evidence of this, from the amazing growth achieved by Parkrun UK which now has over 50,000 runners involved every weekend, through to the sheer size and diversity of the Fetcheveryone community.

So, while the incentive of a nice cup of tea and chocolate digestive as a reward will get you lacing up your trainers for a run, it’s the chat with your running partner as you pound the streets that will really turn it into an enjoyable habit.