February 2, 2011

The Psychology of Exercise Prescription

The Hawthorne Effect occurs when participants in a study
improve the aspect of behavior that is being measured
because they know they are being measured. In other
words, they cheat on their tests.
Over the past few days, the Canadian news media has announced the fact that we, as Canadians, are embellishing a bit when it comes to our self reports of health. We think we are all that and a bowl of crispy fresh vegetables (with the balsamic and vinegar on the side). I believe this is called "the Hawthorne Effect" and is prevalent in any study that asks people to self report their behaviour (keep that in mind when you read about another statistical report). We all want to look good for the proverbial camera. So it came as no surprise, to me, that this was the case when reporting our national good health (but they didn't have to proclaim it on national news that we were cheating on our tests...did they?).

Also the cartoon is cheesy, the message
is inclusive.
At any rate, these results have highlighted the importance of following the standard Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines suggesting that children should be getting no less than 60 minutes of continuous physical activity (PA) and adults only 150 minutes per week. This only amounts to 30 minutes during your work day. As a Kinesiologist and Personal Trainer, this guideline seems a bit watered down when compared with what I learned in exercise physiology. Why, when exercise science suggests a more detailed and lengthy prescription, are Canadians only having to do the minimal? Oh...oh........oh! I know! Pick me! Pick me!

I just love love love telling this story...the story of the Active Living. It wasn't until I began researching for my masters thesis research, that I started to learn more about how the Active Living movement came about and why the Canadian PA Guidelines represent the bare minimum. So sit back, pour yourself a fruit and spinach smoothie, and enjoy.....

If you are Canadian, you will
know these two all too well.
 In the beginning....the American College of Sports Medicine emphasized the importance of aerobic exercise 3-5 times per week at 60 - 90% of one's maximum heart rate (220 - age = max. heart rate....just in case you were interested) for 15-60+ minutes. Of course, the usual exercise nuts were fine with it, but the majority of Canadians didn't budge from the couch (of course, I'm embellishing for dramatic emphasis). So...the Canadian "powers-that-were" decided to create a program that took a more moderate approach to PA that would include daily activities such as gardening, housework, the usual "take the stairs instead of the elevator" messages...you know the drill. This way, they thought, all Canadians will feel included and able to achieve the new guidelines. Overall, this new way of thinking about PA was refreshing. It focused on holistic health, was inclusive, individual, and included the understanding of the social influences (or determinants) of health. In 1989, the term 'Active Living' was officially trademarked....and we could look forward to see Hal and Joanne touting the benefits of this new philosophy through their Bodybreak ads and message of "Get fit and have fun!" (God love 'em....I can hear the jingle in my head and probably will until I die).

.......didn't really work that great though. Especially when most of us, according to the latest Health Canada stats are way more underfit and overfat than our last national measure taken in 1981.

This is the latest from Health Canada. I particularly like the impact of the "before and after" silohettes.

So here we are; a nation of larger more stationary people taking about the latest episode of the Biggest Loser at the water cooler (not that there's anything wrong with that). I wonder if those involved with the Canadian PA Guidelines take into account the national addiction to technology? Do they understand the influences of a good reality TV show to keep us sitting at home? 

My point (albeit kinda all over the place) is that as soon as the prescription for daily exercise becomes too daunting, the average person will turn and walk (not run) the other way. That is the psychology of exercise prescription. No matter what the science says....if it appears overwhelming to the individual, it ain't gonna happen. If you want to improve your chances of health and mobility well into your old age here is the facts you need to know (based upon the scientific evidence)....

This is what the stats show for the kids. Overall, it's not a great report card.

For health, to enhance or maintain cardiovascular fitness, one must perform 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise 5 days per week. For weight loss, especially for those over 40, you are looking at something around 45 - 60 minutes 5 (or most days) of the week. Is that something you can do today? If not, there is hope for you yet if you follow "Kathi's Top 5 Tips for Exercise Adherence" (trademark and patent pending.....kidding...sort of).

1. Start with only 2 days a week...more than that, your rate of drop out goes up.
2. Begin with 15-20 minutes per session. Once you achieve that for one month without fail...add another day.
3. Once you have achieved 2 months/3 days per week/20 minutes per day...move to 30 minutes
4. Once you achieve that without skipping a day...move to 4 days per week and then to 5 the next month.
5. Once you achieve 5 days/30 minutes, start increasing your intensity level.

The theme is slow progression. If you don't adhere to your program for one month...you don't move forward. You repeat the same program but also taking notes of what got in your way that last month. Within the year, you will be achieving the suggested PA guidelines. Trust me...if you aren't sticking to exercise now, give this a try. Grab some friends and create a walking program. Create a celebrate for each successful month achieved. Make a party out of it.

It's always interesting to me that we hear all about the science of exercise in the media. From what's the best exercise to how to get started without a hint of psychology. Sure, a trainer somewhere will suggest setting SMART (small, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timed) goals, but I believe the psychology of goal setting is more intricate and encompassing than just SMART goals. We are just skimming the surface of exercise prescription when we fail to incorporate a healthy dose of behavioural psychology to our plan. Until the certification courses and kinesiology programs place a heavier focus on this, we may be hearing more and more about the science....which means, I still have a job!

'Cause, really....let's be honest.....it's all about me.



  1. Awesome article. It's amazing how we can talk ourselves into anything, isn't it? I really love your patent-pending Exercise Adherence tips. Seriously. We'd all do better setting ourselves up for success in the first place. Thanks for this. I enjoyed it.

  2. Wow...thanks for those great comments, Sue. It's so nice to know someone is reading (and enjoying) these.
    Now..please send your link to your blog so I can check it out!