‘Rebranding’ exercise with a better app

Counting calories, miles and minutes doesn’t motivate people to keep up a regimen, but focus on short-term benefits might, researchers say

By Clay Evans

It’s a bit of a paradox: People who focus on the oft-cited and indisputable physical and physiological benefits of exercise—weight management and healthy aging, for example—are less likely to continue an exercise regime than people who simply feel good after sweating a bit and value those effects on their quality of life.

Yet the predominant model for encouraging exercise still emphasizes a more nuts-and-bolts approach of counting calories, miles, metabolic equivalents and the like. Even if people accept the assertion, they aren’t necessarily motivated to exercise by knowing what’s good for them.

“Recent work has argued that exercise suffers from a ‘branding problem’ and efforts to promote exercise may be better served by switching the focus from the long-term benefits of exercise that improve health, to the immediate benefits of exercise that enhance quality of life,” write Courtney Stevens and Angela Bryan in their article, “Rebranding Exercise: There’s an App for That,” in the November/December 2012 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Courtney Stevens, a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder

Stevens, a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, and her adviser Bryan, professor of psychology and neuroscience, surmise that using hand-held technology could help runners, bikers and spinners track and record the immediate benefits of exercise and improve the likelihood that they will continue to exercise.

“The idea is that if we want people to exercise, we ought to be promoting the affective benefits,” Stevens says.

The article proposes that creating a smartphone application to aid exercisers in recording their perceived immediate affective response to exercise could help people become more aware of how they feel after they exercise.

“There is reason to think that such an application could be widely disseminated and implemented. … As of 2010, nearly half of all cellular phone users owned smartphones capable of accessing Web-based applications … and this percentage has been steadily increasing,” Stevens and Bryan write.

Stevens says an app would allow for a controlled study to be conducted where both approaches to encouraging exercise are evaluated and compared against each other. Some subjects would be asked to focus on stats such as calories burned or miles run, while others would ignore such information and record only affective responses.

The goal would be to determine whether people who focus on how they feel stick with exercising longer than those who focus on traditional measurements tied to health benefits.

“Past research looking at the relationship between affective response to exercise and future exercise behavior has been limited in that you can’t randomly assign people to have a particular affective response,” Stevens says.

“But what you can do is randomly assign people to attend to one component of the exercise experience or another and then determine which is more predictive of long-term maintenance.”

And what better tool to self-monitor than an app?

“We’re interested in harnessing technology to increase exercise behavior,” says Bryan, co-director of the CUChange Lab—also known as the Center for Health and Addiction: Neuroscience, Genes & Environment. “It lays the groundwork for us to say, ‘We’d like to develop this kind of technology and see how it works in an empirical study.’”

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