Thursday, January 10, 2013

Annual Fitness Advice Post: Using Social Psychology to Your Advantage

It seems every year I end up writing a post on how to get your fitness on.  But there's a prollem.  All the fitness advice in the world doesn't amount to a thang if'n it ain't put into practix.  So, in this year's post I'm going to focus on what we know about psychology and social psychology that can actually help us do what most of us already know we should do.  For that reason, I will only briefly go over nutrition and fitness plans because I've already dealt with these topics in detail in prior posts: 

Brief Overview of Fitness Programs and Methods
There is the optimal work out and there is the one you will do.  Pick the latter.  Do I need to explain this?  Here's the low down: pick a physical activity that you will actually do at least 3 times a week.  It might not be optimal, but you'll actually do it--and that's what matters most.  It can be anything physical: dance, zumba, aerobics, martial arts, karate-chopping bricks, speed walking, weight training, basketball, yoga, ping pong, whatever...you get the point.  

Also, it needn't always be the same activity.  Maybe one day you do yoga, other day you karate-chop bricks, and the other you play ping pong.  Whatever keeps you engaged and avoids stagnation. 

There are a few caveats: (a)  If it doesn't make you sweat, it's not intense enough, or you're not pushing yourself hard enough. (b) You should do the activity for no less than 45min per session and no fewer than 3 times a week.  Of course, sometimes life gets in the way and in such cases you can make exceptions, but for the most part, try to stick to these minimums.  

If you're too tired one day, go the next.  There are almost no good reasons for which you cannot do something 3 times a week.  Also, even on a really busy day, you can go for 30min--it's not optimal but it's better than not going.  Which leads me to an important psychological point. 

We are creatures of habit.  This quality on its own isn't a good or bad thing--what matters is the nature of the habits themselves.  What does this mean for fitness?  

You got it.  Establishing good habits is the only way to success.  Every fit person I know goes a little crazy when they miss workouts.  Just as people with bad habits go crazy when their habits are broken.  

If you create 'good' habits, you will eventually need to continue them--this means DO NOT skip workout days in the habit forming phase. The more you do, the easier it becomes to do so.  Unless you're sick, you should at least drag your butt to your activity for 30min.  Once you get started you'll find that you perform much better than you expected and you'll feel good about yourself for persevering.  Most importantly you are further reenforcing a good habit rather than a bad one (i.e., being an out-of-shape whiny baby--waaaaa! I'm too tired to work out).

Ok, you big babies, next is nutrition.  Here is my scientifical advice.  Eat a good breakfast.  Some protein (eggs) and some complex carbs.  Begin your lunch and dinner with meal-sized salads.  When you're done, eat your protein (chicken, fish, lean beef, vegetable protein).  If you're still hungry have a small serving of complex carbs (brown rice, whole grain bread).  

Yeah, I said it: bread.  Don't give me that crap about "but I'm gluten intolerant."  Bullshit.  Only a very very small percentage of the population is.  Oh! I know, you're soooooooooooo special and I don't understand how special you are with your gluten intolerance and sensitivity to wifi too...give me break.  But I digress...

So, why eat so much salad before your meals?  Cuz it will fill you up and you won't over eat the high calorie stuff that makes you jiggly.  Next!

Supplements:  99% of them are total BS.  Unless you live in the 3rd world and have nutritional deficiency or your diet is 100% twinkies, you're wasting your money.  And it doesn't count if your naturopathic "doctor" tells you that you are a very special person due to a deficiency they discovered through applied kinesiology (i.e., magic bullshit).  Besides, you can simply rectify the problem by wearing a hologram on a piece of rubber. Problem solved! 

Ok, so what supplements aren't a total waste of money?  For the recreational fitness participant, pretty much all.  If you are training at a level beyond recreational, you might benefit from protein supplementation (protein shakes-whey is best) and creatine (plain creatine monohydrate--don't buy that over-priced other crap).  

Everything else it a waste of money except Acai berries that cure all forms of cancer and every other disease and virus known to mankind.  I read that on the intertubes, so it must be true.  That's why there's no cancer in Brazil.  What?  You didn't know that?  Oh, and sharks don't get cancer either, so eat sharks.

Psychology and Healthy Eating
What counts as healthy eating shouldn't be much of a surprise to most people, so why do we so often fail at it?  One reason big is weakness of will.  Side-stepping the philosophical question of what 'will' is, lets assume the common (vague) understanding.  

Here's what we know about will power: (a) it is finite, (b) it diminishes as the day progresses and as we tire.  These facts aren't good or bad in themselves, what's important is how we apply them.

Just Say "No" Once:  If I know that my will power is finite then it is easier to turn down ice cream 1x than it is to turn it down 10x in the same day.  But how do we apply this?  It's like this y'all.  

When you go shopping DO NOT buy unhealthy food.  This is you saying 'no' once.  But if you buy it and bring it into your crib, you will have to say 'no' every time you walk by the fridge or think of ice cream.  The psychological laws predict that the ice cream will eventually win.  Don't let the ice cream win!!! You are better than ice cream!

Shop and Cook Yur Food in Advance.  Next implication:  Our will power decreases as the day progresses and as we tire (the two usually go hand in hand).  What do we do with this information?  

Here's a familiar scene:  Waaaaaa!  I'm a big baby.  I'm tired from work.  I don't feel like cooking.  I'm just going to grab some fast food at _____.  Sound familiar?  

We can't do anything about you being a big baby, but we can do something to prevent you from buying fast food cuz there's no food in the replicator:  Cook your food in advance.  Either cook your dinner when you make your lunch, or make dinner in a slow cooker when you leave for work, or cook a bunch of food at a time so you have meals for a few days, or cook a lot of food and freeze it in portions.  

Or do what I do: start cooking your protein first, then eat your salad while it's cooking.  When you're done your salad, dinner will be ready.  Ta! Da! Good habit preserved and bad habit averted! 

I should add that all this requires that you keep healthy food in your house.  There is no greater deterrent to cooking than a tired and hungry person without any healthy food in the house.

As with exercise, the same applies to nutrition--it's about creating good habits.  But enough of this habit stuff.  That habit stuff don't mean crap if I can't do it long enough to create the habit.  Am I right?  Ami right?  

Ok, so this is where we're going to appeal to social psychology to keep us on track long enough to establish good habits...

Social Psychology and Beginning & Keeping Good Habits
Premise:  We are extremely susceptible to the influences of our peers.  Not surprisingly, this also applies to health and fitness habits.  In a really cool 30 year study which followed 12, 067 people and their social networks these interesting conclusions were drawn: 

(a)  when a friend becomes obese, the chances of you becoming obese increases by 57%.
(b)  family and neighbor obesity had much smaller effects on an individuals obesity.
(c)  the greatest influence was on close friends:  if someone was close friends with someone who became obese, the non-obese person's likelihood of becoming obese rose to 171%!
(d)  the same effect was observed for weight loss.
(e)  the proposed mechanism is that friends affect each others' perception of fatness. When a close friend becomes obese, obesity may not look so bad. "You change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you."

For a more detailed analysis here's a good write up: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/25/health/25iht-fat.4.6830240.html?pagewanted=all

So, how can we use this information to our advantage?  Should we drop our close friends if they become obese?  Probably not.  Instead we should also seek out peers that have healthy habits we wish to emulate.  This will have the effect of countering an obese peer and at least give us a fighting chance.  171% is a lot to overcome! But don't forget, the effect works both ways...

But where am I going to find peers with healthy lifestyles?  Um, maybe at the fitness activity you skipped out on yesterday to eat cupcakes with your other friend!  

Accountability and Support within Peer Groups
We increase the probability of our following through on something when we are held accountable and given support by our peer group.  Big whoop.  How does this apply?  Well, for example, in one study of those who went into a weight loss program with a friend, 95% completed the program (10 month program) and 66% maintained the loss.

While the numbers vary between studies, the general effect is clear.  Those who enter weight loss programs with peers have higher completion rates and long-term success rates.  

The moral of the story?  Get a fitness buddy or group to keep you on track, motivated, and accountable.

One interesting model I heard about on NPR was people starting using social networking for motivation and accountability.  This can be done on your personal page or you can create a private group.  In the show they talked about people announcing their starting weight and having to report every determined interval.  

I doubt many people who are already self-conscious about their weight would be comfortable with publishing their weight on facebook or even to their close friends.  I suggest the following solution.  Don't publish your weight.  Your weight is 'x'.  However, you do need to publish after each week how many pounds you've lost or gained.  You might also considering publishing whether you've attended your fitness activity as you promised to your friends.

Aside: This brings up a side issue of whether body weight is a good measure of fitness and health.  I won't engage in that debate.  Use whatever measure you like--BMI, waist circumference  bicep size--whatever.  It's not that important in the early stages.  Personally, I just look at my abs.  If I can see them, I'm on track.  If I can't, I've got work to do.

The Power of Competition
Most, but not all, of us like to compete.  Modern techmology has made quantification and comparison of fitness activities easy.  My sister wears a little device on her waist.  It's about the size of a thumb drive.  It uploads how much distance you cover in a day and about how many calories you've burned as well as other biometric info like heart rate.  

Now, here's the cool part.  Her company started a program where you can have all this info uploaded to a common website.  Everyone who opts in gets their info uploaded to this site.  So, everyone can see how everyone else is performing.

You'd be surprised how engaged people get in the competition.  Now, instead of driving a short distance, employees walk so they can 'beat' the other competitors for calories burned or distance covered.  Add incentives and you have a workforce full of fitness freaks.  

Trust me.   My sister's a maniac about it.  Every time we've gone for a run she has to bring her little device so she can beat the other employees.  

This same mentality can easily be harnessed between groups of friends.  For example, everyone puts $20.00 into a pot, whoever burns the most calories over t wins the money or gets to donate it to the charity of their choice.

Bottom line is that the most powerful motivational forces for humans are social.  Use them to your advantage in conjunction with rewards, punishment, and emotional support.  And go with your friends to buy one of those gadgets my sister has!

Rules vs "The Reasonable Person" 
This is an interesting one.  This belongs more to the realm of psychology proper rather than social psychology.  To illustrate consider the following typical scenario:

You're at home watching the boob tube.  You say to yourself "I'm just going to have one square of chocolate--besides, it's got antioxidants so it's good for me!"  Next thing you know you're thinking, "I've already broken my rule so I might as well have a few more pieces.  Five chocolate bars later you're not feeling so hot.  Then you think, "well, I've already broken my diet, I might as well eat the ice cream too."

This is the problem with rules.  Once we break them, there's no reason for us to act on them so we easily rationalize further transgressions.  I.e., "I've already broken the rule, so breaking it more isn't going to matter."  

The problem with rules is that they are often binary.  We are allowed to eat chocolate or we aren't.  We're on a diet, or we aren't.  We exercise, or we don't.  Once we put ourselves on one side of the disjunct, there's nothing preventing us from being extreme. So, what's the solution?  

The reasonable person approach:  We ax ourselves what a reasonable person would do in the situation.  Would a reasonable person who is overweight eat 5 chocolate bars and a tub of ice cream?  Nope.  Would a reasonable person skip the gym because they only have 30min rather than the usual 45min?  Nope.  When we avoid thinking in binary terms, the door opens for reasonable action.

This is not to say rules don't have their place.  Rules are a good pre-emptive defensive strike against rationalizing ourselves into doing unhealthy things.  In other words, I'm not saying you should do away with rules completely, but we should not be over-reliant on them.  Perhaps a hybrid approach will be more fruitful.  

Furthermore, the reasonable person approach is not without its own difficulties.  As Hume said, "Man is not a rational animal, but a rationalizing animal."

For more on this listen to the most excellent podcast "Very Bad Wizards" Episode 7.

There are a whole bunch of apps that will help you with self-discipline.  Some of these harness the effects of social psychology and some don't.  Opt for the ones that do. 


  1. Ami. I love the idea of asking what a reasonable person would do in a situation. What if this man were gluten intolerant?

    So what do you think about exercise programs, like P.C.P., which set up a peer group for you. The group that entered the program at the same time becomes your peer group for that phase of the program. How much do you think it matters that your peer is your friend, or that your peer is another guy in Manchester England who started the program at the same time as you?

  2. What if a reasonable man were gluten intolerant? First, he'd go on the inter-tubes and find the flashiest website that talks about "energies" and "chakras", selling the most expensive cure-alls, and order everything!

    Re: PCP. Before I make any evaluation I'll repeat what I said at the beginning of my post: there is the optimum fitness plan, and there is the one you'll actually do. Pick the latter. At an even more basic level: any fitness plan is better than no fitness plan. So, on that note, I already approve because it is something rather than nothing and if it works for some people, then, while it may or may not be optimal--ppl are doing it and that's great.
    I didn't look too closely at their program but their advertised success rate seems a bit too good to be true: "Over 90% of our trainees complete the program with significant loss of body fat and gain in muscle tone." A couple of comments: (a) the statement is ambiguous. Do 90% of people who enter the program complete it? Or of the people that complete it, do 90% show results. If the latter (and more likely interpretation) it is somewhat less impressive since most people who begin new fitness programs are beginning from a very low level of fitness and gains come easy.
    Next: There success rate is also potentially misleading because there is a selection bias. The price of the 90 day program is 600.00 up front. Anyone who is willing to plunk down that amount of cash up front is (a) highly motivated and (b) has a strong incentive not to quit. contrast this with the cost of signing up to a regular gym or yoga studio. Usually at this time of year there is no up front cost and the monthly fee is quite low. You haven't invested much so it's easy to walk away (see US mortgage crises circa 2009). There are other criticisms, but this should suffice.
    At the end of the day, it's hard to judge the program unless it's compared to other programs. Absolute numbers don't tell us much if we're trying to evaluate something in respect to other alternatives.
    On the plus side, the program seems to harness the social forces that bring about motivation. However, as was shown in the study I cited (the long term study on 12, 000 ppl), the closer the social relation, the stronger the effect (eg, the fitness of neighbours had little effect, while the effect of close friends--even if they lived in other cities--had a tremendous effect (171% of weight gain if your close friends gain weight).
    Like I said, this program is a step up from going it alone, but it doesn't fully harness the effect of social relations because the groups are of people that don't know each other and therefore, the social force of the what is or isn't acceptable will not be very strong. (I.e., why should I care what some stranger thinks of me).
    Ideally, to tap into the social motives to engage in a healthful lifestyle, you should team up with friends or groups of friends whose attitudes and opinions toward you you actually care about.
    That's my two cents anyway...thanks for the question!