The fitness industry is said to be worth £4.4 billion in the UK alone. But, despite medical research telling us that exercise will help us live longer, the majority of people do not engage with health and fitness. Could it be that exercise is still considered a punishment – as it was in Victorian prisons? Or do we just need to increase the fun and social aspect to exercise to get more of us working up a sweat?
Medical research suggests exercise is good for our health and will help us all live longer. But a report by the British Heart Foundation indicates that 20m people living in the UK are physically inactive. To be considered active, the UK department of health recommends adults should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week. So it begs the question, why do close to a third of the country’s population struggle to meet this recommended amount of exercise, when doing so could prolong their life?
A reason why inactive people may not engage in enough exercise is because it is not perceived to be a fulfilling or satisfying leisure pursuit. Other competing pastimes of a more sedentary nature, such as watching TV, reading and gaming, are seen by some as being more enjoyable.
Exercise as punishment
The treadmill was devised as a form of punishment for convicted criminals in the Victorian era. At this time, prisoners had to undertake long hours of hard labour by walking on treadmills to grind flour. This form of punishment was abolished in the late 19th century for being too cruel.
Exercise also has a long history of being used as a form of correctional behaviour in schools. Indeed in 2014 the then Conservative education secretary, Nicky Morgan, proposed to ban exercise being used in schools as a form of punishment for fear that it would put children off being active.
Given that exercise has a lengthy historical association with the use of discipline for the purpose of punishment and obedience, can 21st-century society ever be truly accepting of exercise as a leisure pursuit that can have personal fulfilment? At present, the high volume of inactivity levels in the UK suggests a large amount of people are not motivated to take exercise. Getting people to be more active, therefore, would require a shift in people exercising because they want to rather than having to.
Making it social
My research explores the role of social psychology for the development of interventions that make physical activity a fulfilling pursuit for long-term condition sufferers. This is because social psychological science has consistently demonstrated that people are motivated to seek social connections in order to fulfil their psychological needs as human beings. For example, “the belongingness hypothesis” states that people have a basic need to feel closely connected to others.
So it is important people have positive social exercise experiences which enrich their quality of life and in doing so make the pursuit of exercise a more satisfying and worthwhile activity. This can be achieved by creating exercise environments that provide individuals with a shared sense of social connectedness, creating opportunities for people to form friendships, meaningful attachments and mutually supportive relationships.
For example, the EuroFit programme takes a unique approach for improving men’s health and fitness by allowing fans to train in the environment of a professional football club they support. City Ride events are another example, where families and friends of all ages and abilities can enjoy cycling together through the streets of a vibrant traffic-free environment. Similarly, walking sports offer a social atmosphere of fun, laughter and camaraderie for those who may have difficulty participating in high impact activities.
Connecting people in dynamic and socially rewarding exercise environments has the potential to offset the drudgery often associated with exercise and make it a leisure pursuit worth doing.