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to increase exercise, start with self-image

August 18, 2010

in change,communication,wellness

“The built environment can constrain or facilitate physical activity. Understanding ways to encourage greater use of local environments for physical activity offers some hope for reducing the growth in the prevalence of obesity.”

dr. john m. macdonald, PhD, university of pennsylvania

translation: how can we change what’s around us to get us to move more?

macdonald, a PENN professor, studied the effect of a newly installed light-rail system on physical activity and BMI and found that the very act of offering an alternative led to healthier behaviors and healthier bodies. those who opted for the new commuting option walked an average 1.2 miles across their two daily commutes. a year after the light-rail’s installation, the riders were 6.45 pounds lighter than those who drove. (they did adjust their BMI downward, which is less meaningful to me, given the BMI’s controversy-ridden standing.)

the best part? i’ll bet these riders didn’t even think they were exercising. they were commuting.

after congratulating myself (again) for being so smart (smug) about making the city my home, i tried to figure out how companies could use this knowledge.

we already know that most companies aren’t set up for movement. we also know that sitting endlessly does more than contribute to our ever-widening bottomlines. it’s not likely that companies are going to redesign their existing structures to create more opportunities to move. they’re also not going to shut down email and phone service so you have to get up to talk with the team member who’s two offices down the hall. if the green movement continues to grow, they may advocate for more light-rail or other public transportation—something i believe would also increase the diversity of their workforce. but that’s long-term thinking. in the short term, we’re at a loss for how to improve the physical environment.

then again, we don’t sit all day. and some workers move. lots. what if we all started thinking of our normal movement as meaningful exercise, like the commuters? in switch, the heath brothers tell a great story about maids who discounted their on-the-job physical activity. they considered themselves to be non-exercisers—until the researchers changed their sense of identity. they told a group they were exercise superstars. suddenly, those maids were exerting so much more (unconscious) effort in their typical room cleaning, they lost weight. while losing weight isn’t always the point, increasing activity is. here, the simple act of changing the way they looked at themselves triggered new behavior.

over the long haul, companies can alter their “built” environment with consideration for physical activity. in the short term, they can help people change their self-image—and their health.

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more on the study:

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