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Motivation

Do You Turn Exercise Into Work or Leisure?

Findings from the "commit vs. celebrate" exercise survey and more.

Key points

  • Research finds that an activity has to include a sense of freedom in order to be experienced as leisure.
  • Certain terms make exercise feel more like work, while others make it feel more like leisure.
  • Professionals in distinct settings can use tactics to help their end users perceive exercise as a leisure-time activity.

Do you want to commit to exercise or celebrate it? It's your choice.

In January, I asked my readers to weigh in on which term they thought was a more potent frame for and promoter of exercising: commit or celebrate. I’ve never done a reader survey before, and it was gratifying to receive so many passionate responses and really fun to learn what everyone thought. I’ll cut right to the chase: Celebrate got 80 percent of the votes.

This large endorsement likely shows the bias of those of you who follow my work. Yet it’s important to note how big a shift this is from the traditional prescriptive narrative about exercising that is still alive and embedded within health care, wellness, and fitness centers.

Committers vs. Celebrators

I was impressed by the impassioned responses people gave on both sides of this question. It reminded me again that the “right” way to exercise is never a one-size-fits-all deal. We’ll get back to this, but first I’d like to share a few of the comments by voters explaining their choice.

The Committers fell into two main camps:

  • Those who felt the word "commit" led to greater consistency. ("It prepares you to be determined.” “Commit … suggests that you will finish what you started.”)
  • Those who found the very notion of using the word "celebrate" in the same breath as exercise abhorrent: (“The idea of ‘celebrating through exercising’ sounds like balderdash and pure nonsense to my ears.” “'Celebrate by exercising' just sounds like toxic positivity to me.”)

For the Celebrators, the overarching theme was work vs. fun.

Their responses explicitly contrasted the negative connotations associated with the idea of committing (like work, rules, and obligations) with the positive invitation associated with the idea of celebrating. ("Committing makes it a duty or task and something I should do (I don’t need more of those!); celebrating makes it something I get to do.” “I already have so many commitments, I don’t want to take on any more. But I could use a few more celebrations in my life!”)

Unsurprisingly, many more Celebrators noted the importance of having positive experiences from movement, like fun and being outside, while the Committers were less likely to mention positivity with exercise.

And one new theme arose that I have not yet explored in my own messaging research: the very idea that celebrating through exercise may imply gratitude for one’s body, ability to move, and even life. (“Celebration is an extension of gratitude. A mindset of gratitude toward ourselves—mind, body, and soul—allows for entering a place of honor toward each of those domains.”)

And the best promoter of exercise is...?

Okay, let’s return to the original question: Which of the two options do you think better promotes exercising?

The simple answer is, it depends. The voters' comments underscore the fact that we are unique individuals who are motivated by different things. We need to honor what works for us as long as it doesn’t harm us or others.

This is undeniably true. Yet as someone who designs and evaluates systems for creating sustainable exercise motivation and consistent decision-making, I am most interested in which terms and concepts will be most impactful for most people.

While there is no “right” term, my work has taught me that there are words and concepts that are more compelling and positive. And these are the words that will better drive the consistent decision-making that underlies maintenance for those of us who haven’t yet figured out how to sustain physically active lives.

I am always open to experience and research teaching me that I'm wrong and need to rethink my beliefs. But currently "celebrate" gets my vote: Celebrating during, from, or with exercise and movement reflects a more strategic and positive script for more people who are inactive and truly want to take better care of themselves but haven’t figured out how—yet.

Rethinking "leisure time"

You likely already know that my work suggests that exercise cannot become an automatic habit for most people, despite the hype. Most of us need to consciously choose to move, day in and day out—and to do so in the face of a huge list of other potential, and often unanticipated, competing activities. This means that many of us need to fit in exercise and be physically active during our leisure time.

You might be saying to yourself, “What leisure time?” And while there’s truth in that protestation, the amount of time people spend on social media and streaming entertainment is evidence that leisure time indeed exists for many of us.

Given that so many of us (or our clients, patients, and employees) need physical activity to be a leisure activity, we better know more about the nature and needs of leisure time, per se.

Fortunately for us, there’s a hot-off-the-press paper by researchers Seppo Iso-Ahola and Roy Baumeister addressing this very thing:

“Multiple studies have shown that leisure is a psychological entity overwhelmingly defined by people’s perceptions of freedom ... a sense of freedom more than anything else defines what leisure is to people. Importantly, leisure means freedom to choose to do or not to do something. Otherwise, a sense of obligation arises and a sense of leisure is lost.”

Thus, when there’s no sense of freedom associated with a leisure activity, it all too easily transforms into feeling like work or an obligatory activity, preventing it from achieving the desirable status of a leisure activity.

It’s hard to miss the voice of the Celebrators here. One nailed it when they said, “Celebrate implies joy, fun, freedom ... while commit implies ‘work’; a ‘should.’

Yes, we do need to honor the idea that “celebrate” doesn’t easily roll off the tongue alongside the idea of exercising for the Committers and similar others. Yet, we also have to keep in mind that discomfort with the idea of exercise being a celebration goes beyond simply being about personal preference.

We must also acknowledge that this discomfort is due to the fact that for almost half a century we’ve been socialized, even indoctrinated to believe, that “worthy” exercise requires a commitment in order to white-knuckle it through until the end. This most definitely makes it work, not leisure.

To paraphrase what I wrote in my January post, the terms we use for a choice or behavior—whether we say them in our own head or use them in our campaigns, coaching, or digital products—frame the way we look at those choices and behaviors. That frame then influences the feelings and experiences we have when we do them—and that determines whether we stay consistent or not.

Takeaways

Below, I offer specific takeaways for different groups of my readers.

  • For individuals: As humans, we naturally—as an innate brain function—avoid what makes us feel bad and run towards what makes us feel good. As long as the frame you put around exercise motivates continued physical activity, choose to use whichever term feels good to your mind and body.
  • For health and well-being coaches (and clinicians): You have likely already recognized that many of your patients/clients do not consider physical activity as a leisure-time activity they would want to choose. Your challenge is to help them establish a new meaning that can associate physical activity as a feel-good activity they personally create and choose as a way to renew themselves. Please note that you likely can't achieve that important goal if you associate physical activity with losing weight through your coaching/counseling. Exercise is not only a poor activity for producing weight loss, but when we discuss it within a weight loss context, we also convert it into much more than just a chore. We turn it into a behavior associated with shame, weightism, and stigma—and how many want to choose those?
  • Organizational well-being professionals: When you message about physical activity to employees, be intentional about whether your terms will cultivate a sense of restriction and "shoulds" or an expansive invitation of positivity. Make sure you don't dole out prescriptions of how to move. Give employees permission to move in ways that feel good to them, cultivating the meaning of movement as a leisure activity that they choose.
  • Fitness professionals: You may have the toughest job of all because of how many people have had negative experiences in traditional fitness settings. Not to worry, though. Part of your job is to help your clients be cognizant of this as an important first step toward discovering how to make movement a meaningful activity that they want to choose.

Feel free to share this post with others who share your interest in the science-based how-tos of creating lasting changes that can survive in the real world.

References

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1074649/full

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