Prioritizing Physical Activity Messaging The Role of Communications in an Evolving Field

The words, messages, and metaphors we use have an enormous impact on how people perceive and experience being physically active. The NPAPA recently spoke with Dr. Michelle Segar, Director of the University of Michigan Sport, Health, and Physical Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center, about the impact physical activity messages have on people’s motivation for exercising, and the physical activity field more broadly.

The Importance of Physical Activity Messaging

“Our field needs to stop considering communication as just a box to check on a list of “must dos.”  If we want to increase population level physical activity we have to start paying more attention to the words, symbols, and metaphors we use when we communicate about or market exercise.  We need to understand that the goals we ask consumers and patients to aim for through being physically active will result in emotional reactions and specific experiences while being active; both of which influence people’s thoughts and memories about being activity and most importantly whether they desire and decide to consistently do it in the future.  That physical activity benefits health in a multitude of ways has been shown by decades of science.  Now, it’s time for our field to start prioritizing research that investigates how we can more persuasively sell the value of physical movement to people in communities, clubs, and clinics so we can more effectively increase population-level participation.“

Messages Impact Individual Motivation

“One of the barriers to exercise that people often note is that they “lack motivation.”  To some extent these are smoke screens to what is really going on. There is a strong connection between physical activity communications and exercise motivation.  Motivation is a clinical term, but at the core exercise motivation is about a desire to move, about whether people feel energized to be active.   Imagine someone saying, “I’m not motivated to exercise”, what they’re really saying is, “I don’t desire or want to exercise”.

You ask, “Why not?”
“Because it hurts!” they reply.
“Why does it hurt?”
“Because I go to the gym and do it this way.”
“Why are you doing it this way?”
“Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. I read that in a magazine”

What is key for physical activity professionals to understand is that the perceived barrier of “I’m not motivated to be active” is a direct result of the greater socialization to exercise and physical activity that our population has had.  The societal definition of “proper” exercise that people have is based on very specific, and frankly limiting, messages about why they should exercise (i.e. to benefit health and lose weight) and how they should do it (e.g., follow guidelines, get my heart rate up). We, as a field, have indoctrinated people to have a myopic view of movement and limiting set of beliefs about it. We’ve given people medicalized rather than pleasure-based or more meaningful reasons to become more active. (How well does “kids eat your vegetables they are good for you!” work?) We’ve also been dolling out threshold messages and prescribing doses of exercise based on optimal health responses and formal guidelines rather than what would make being active enjoyed or meaningful.  The unintended harm from our traditional approach is that people think they have to hit a specific target for movement to be worth doing. If they can’t hit that target (i.e. specific dose) or gold standard then they don’t choose to move.  This relationship can be further impacted by the increasing popularity of activity trackers. My team’s research shows that having any type of gold standard criterion often results people choosing not to move because they discount opportunities for movement that are not “ideal.” (e.g., 30 minutes, intense exercise, in a gym).”

Messaging in an Evolving Field

“We know physical activity cultivates a myriad of benefits related to health and wellbeing.  Physical activity is a true elixir of life.  Currently, however, the physical activity cache within institutions, government, business, and healthcare is padded with medicalized and cost-related outcomes.  The focus is on the bottom line, (i.e. physical activity can reduce healthcare costs or increase productivity).  But while we, and these institutions, need to know about these very real and beneficial outcomes from physical activity, it’s time to recognize these benefits are NOT the same benefits from physical activity that will make consumers, employees, and patients want to keep doing it again, and again, and again.
For example, there is mounting research suggesting that the immediate “feel good” benefits (e.g., emotional reasons) from being active better motivate participation than logical, “health benefits” across the lifespan.  In fact, this idea can explained by decision making research suggesting that humans are more motivated by immediate rewards (e.g., think “stress reduction”) compared to  ones they have to wait for (e.g., think “preventing diabetes). There are tremendous implications from this science on how our field should be messaging about physical activity across populations.  Importantly, these new messaging strategies can be used across all types of modalities, including gaming and mobile apps, community- and clinic-based interventions, marketing, social media, and PSAs.”

Historically, our field has treated the communication of physical activity as a necessary evil, an afterthought, the thing we have to do to achieve the outcomes that we want.  But it’s really just the opposite!  If the field is truly going to successfully increase population-level physical activity, we have to get physical activity into the hearts and priorities of individuals, clinicians, and communities.  We have to follow the same formula that any smart marketer does.  We can’t make assumptions about why physical activity could be relevant and compelling for a person or a community based on our goals and objectives (e.g. weight loss, decreased health care).  Instead we need to purposely and strategically discover what’s going on in their hearts and minds so we can link what they care most about to being physically active. People may say they care about becoming healthier and think exercise is a good way to get there, but decades of research shows a gap between what people value and intend to do and what they actually do.  To close this gap, we must stop presuming that health and weight control are what make physical activity compelling to daily life.  Instead of as an afterthought, as we’ve been doing, it’s time for our field to evolve in our own beliefs and priorities, and to start considering physical activity communication as the truly strategic and potent tool that it has the potential to be.

Our current problem is to a great extent due to how society has socialized the population to perceive and experience physical activity. While this might be a big part of the problem is also the door to the solution. It’s important to remember that no one is to blame; the current messaging strategy is simply a logical result of the way our field has evolved, out of a focus on health, in addition to the marketing of fitness products and services.  But while we need to appreciate the important history that got us to this point, we should also embrace the fact that our messages have influenced people developing non-optimal beliefs about physical activity and exercise. People’s beliefs seed their perceptions, experiences, and behavior.  Fortunately for our field, we can leverage the same, efficient educational process that got us here: socialization.   We can leverage the power of socialization (e.g., educating through norms, values, and messages) to turn this situation on its head by resocializing people to movement with new messages and meanings about the value of physical activity for people’s daily lives!  We need to give people new messages that can cultivate the development of new beliefs aligned with choosing to move.  As a field, we’ve got to identify the best ways to change our physical activity frames, messages, and meanings.  We need to seed new beliefs about and reasons for physical activity that will flourish in people’s minds and lives, ultimately supporting a culture that wants to move instead of feeling that they should do it.”

A New Messaging Collaboration: The NPAPA and Frameworks Institute

“In an effort to understand this complex messaging issue, the NPAPA Board of Directors recently voted to establish a formal collaboration with the Frameworks Institute to study better ways to frame physical activity, a leading nonprofit communications organization known for understanding socially compelling issues from a cultural perspective.  Framework’s strategically researches the beliefs that get in the way of understanding an issue or being motivated to act.  The findings of the proposed national physical activity messaging study will be used to help make physical activity more compelling to communities and individuals though identifying more strategic and compelling communications.  The way that the NPAPA is organized will make disseminating the findings from this work efficient offers an opportunity for these findings to have a large impact.  The NPAPA board’s decision to move forward with this project is an acknowledgement that strategic and persuasive communication can no longer be an afterthought for our field. The findings from this comprehensive national study can be used across sectors, from health care to education to business to gyms. The NPAPA is now seeking funding partners for this work.
I believe our field has arrived at this point where we are finally willing to make this pivot because we can’t help but recognize that what we have been doing to date hasn’t effectively increased population physical activity in the way we want and need. We are at an exciting turning point in our field’s evolution!”

Oliver Bartzsch is an experienced medical professional with over 15 years of professional experience. With a passion for medicine, fitness, and personal growth, he is always willing to challenge himself to accomplish tasks and especially to provide accurate medical information to people. Oliver is a long-time medical editor for multiple sites. With more than 10 years of medical writing experience, he has completed over 350 projects with both individual and corporate clients.


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