Enticing Some With Social Cues, Others With Health, Exercise Rewards Body And Mind

David Shaywitz

I recently discussed the rise of digital fitness, and specifically how companies like Peloton are succeeding by delivering an engaging experience.

The new crop of digital fitness companies have figured out how to make health-promoting activities that are intrinsically tedious – like riding a stationary bike – into something compelling and sustaining. A New York Times writer, Amanda Hess, captures the essence of this magnificently in her piece, “Your Brain on Peloton.”

I was reminded of another important component of healthy activities this week when I was chatting with my barber (as one does), and asked about his fitness routine. He told me he goes to his gym 3-4 times a week, and has for years. 

I wondered what gets him there each day. Simple, he said. He has a group of buddies there.  Sometimes, he says, they’ll go for drinks afterwards, or their families will go over to one another’s house afterward for dinner. 

In short: he’s motivated by a sense of community.

An anecdote is hardly data, but the idea that healthy behaviors may be linked to interpersonal influences is well established. 

An influential paper published by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007, for example, examined decades of Framingham Heart Study data, and concluded that “obesity may spread in social networks.” They note “people are embedded in social networks,” which “suggests that both bad and good behaviors might spread over a range of social ties.”

Another Christakis paper, from 2016, looked at two years of Gallup surveys for clues about the influence of social networks. Analyzing the data, Christakis and colleagues concluded that individuals who tend to associate with a lot of heavy people are more likely to want to lose weight, but are less likely to be successful. Conversely, associating with thinner people is linked to more successful weight loss.   

“Gains and losses of even a single social tie with a thinner or heavier individual show important links to the probability of obesity,” the authors of the 2016 paper wrote. In other words: the probability of obesity increases with additional ties to heavier people and decreases with additional ties to thinner people, and vice-versa.

A very readable overview of the “power of community” in cultivating consistent healthy fitness behaviors, by industry analyst Anthony Vennare, can be found here.

My barber’s story also reminds us of Clay Christensen’s advice: make sure you understand the problem to be solved. In Christensen’s classic (and perhaps not so healthy) milkshake example, many customers purchasing a shake from a fast-food drive-through turned out not to be looking for a tasty beverage so much as for something to occupy them in the morning, while they were driving to work. 

By recognizing this initially obscure need, the vendor was able to increase sales by making the shakes thicker (to last longer) and adding bits of fruit (to make it more interesting).

Which brings me back to what the real issue is for the barber at the gym. He’s apparently not looking for the most efficient or effective workout. Instead, he’s looking for camaraderie, while engaged in a healthy activity. These social factors are often what draw customers to the gym, and keeps them coming back.  While these individuals may achieve a healthy outcome, their pursuit of physical health is only one motivator, and often not the primary one.

Of course, not everyone is motivated in the same way. Many people are drawn to exercise explicitly for the physical benefits (such as better endurance, an improved cardiovascular risk profile, a beach body, or wanting to keep up with the grandkids). Some then discover significant mental health dividends along the way.

As modern life becomes increasingly busy, with ever more demands on our attention, “exercise time” may represent our last protected space, a cocoon of time we give to ourselves.

Over the last several years (as I’ve discussed here and here), and continuing through the pandemic, I have savored my morning exercise routine. I’ve used that time — whether sweating inside on the treadmill, elliptical, or weight machine, or outside on my bike — to lose myself in audiobooks and podcasts. I avoid work during this early hour, never checking email or text messages, and avoid all but the most essential calls. I love this daily routine. I find it grounds me, and puts me in a relaxed and positive mindset – an ideal headspace – to start the day. 

I’m certainly not alone.

I also recognize that many people — including me — would have a really tough time taking an hour out of each day for reflection, meditation, or other self-soothing activities. For many similar Type A’s, it would feel difficult to justify, and easy to encroach upon. 

Yet because the time is allocated for an activity that’s both nominally health promoting and physically unpleasant (at least compared to sitting on the couch), it somehow seems easier to rationalize – a modestly uncomfortable sacrifice made in the name of disease prevention. 

In short, exercise creates the permission structure to give ourselves the headspace we so desperately need.

In short, exercise creates the permission structure to give ourselves the headspace we so desperately need.

This also makes me wonder how much of the benefits attributed to the physical aspects of exercise may actually come from the state of mind that exercise enables us to inhabit. Parsing the relative contribution of each seems difficult. 

The bottom line is less ambiguous. Whether you go to the gym to socialize and wind up exercising (delighting your cardiologist), or jump on the bike to stay fit and wind up rejuvenated because of your protected “me-time,” (pleasing your psychiatrist), the results are joyously similar: a healthier body, a happier mind, and a better you.

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