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It isn’t enough to just tell us to Be Active or Move It. Arek Adeoye

Will the government’s new ‘Move It’ exercise campaign move us or lose us?

We need to get off the couch, put down our phones and get 30 minutes of heart rate-raising exercise per day. That’s the message of the government’s Move It AUS marketing campaign, which launched on Sunday.

There is no doubt we need to get the nation moving. In 2014-15 only slightly more than half of us met the weekly physical activity recommendations – 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. One in eight of us did no exercise at all.

But the big question is, how will this “marketing initiative” succeed where many others have not?

This isn’t the first national marketing campaign designed to get us on our feet. Australians have been asked to be “Active Australia” (1997), “Get Moving (2006), ”Unplug and Play“ (2008), ”Find Thirty“ (2002) and "Life, Be In It!” (1975) – to name just a few.

The Australian Sports Commission described Move it AUS as “Life. Be in it 2.0” and will encourage people to “Find your 30”, calling to mind some of these previous campaigns that failed to get us moving.

In 2016, I wrote for The Conversation on the launch of the government’s Girls Make Your Move campaign, designed to encourage young women aged 12 to 19 to be more active. I noted that reviews of physical activity media campaigns have generally found that we see them and remember them, but they don’t change our behaviour.

Read more: 'Girls Make Your Move' exercise ads look good but are unlikely to deliver on their own

So, did Girls make their moves?

The first and second wave evaluations found the campaign reached more than 80% of the target group. There was an increase in positive attitudes in wave one (for example, more young women agreed that physical activity was fun) but a decrease in wave two (for example, fewer young women agreed there was a type of physical activity or sport to suit everyone).

One in five self-reported that they had done more physical activity due to seeing the campaign. But the average number of times they participated in 30 minutes or more of physical activity a week didn’t change.

This finding – that a mass media physical activity campaign achieved high awareness and (largely) positive attitudes, but no meaningful behaviour change – is not a surprise. The outcome isn’t unique to Girls Make Your Move, or to young women as a target group. Find Thirty had high awareness but did not noticeably change the time spent walking or engaging in vigorous physical activity.

The campaign might’ve changed attitudes but it didn’t change behaviour. Screenshot of the Girls Make Your Move website.

Nor is this finding unique to Australia. A review of stand-alone mass media campaigns to increase physical activity in the United States from 1980 to 2008 found very small and inconsistent changes in physical activity.

It takes more than a slick ad

Back when I was an undergraduate, my health promotion lecturer drummed into us that mass media is only useful for getting people to change their behaviour when it is accompanied by on-the-ground support.

Physical activity is complex. People want to know: How much exercise should I do? What type of exercise is best? How can I motivate myself to go running when I’d rather watch TV?

Read more: Research Check: do we really need to do five times as much exercise as we've been told?

It isn’t enough to just tell us to “Be Active” or “Move It”. Consistently, reviews of interventions around the world conclude mass media campaigns need to be part of a multi-component community-wide interventions. On their own, they don’t get us off the couch.

No quick fixes

A review of Australian mass media campaigns for physical activity, nutrition and obesity found that, on average, about two-thirds of target groups recall the main message but fewer change their attitudes or knowledge, and fewer still change their behaviour.

The most effective campaigns were those that involved a sustained, multi-phased effort over five years or more. But sadly, governments tend to launch big national campaigns with splashy PR, big budgets and optimistic targets – all with a short-term focus.

Effective campaigns have consistent and clear branding. There’s a reason Coca-Cola comes in a red can and McDonald’s doesn’t change the colour of the arches each year. Governments promoting healthy lifestyles could learn a thing or two from the opposition.

I’m not sure most Australians perceived a clear and consistent message in the two phases of the national lifestyle campaign – Measure Up (2008-2009) with its real people gaining weight before our eyes, and Swap It, Don’t Stop It (2011) with its cute animated balloon people.

The Measure Up reminded us ‘the more you gain the more you have to lose’.
Eric, the balloon man, is a swapper: ‘I just swap more for less, or swap inside for outside.’

Are you talking to me?

The most effective interventions are those that focus on a specific target audience. This is particularly important for a behaviour such as exercise, where the most effective interventions are targeted by gender, age and other factors. The types of exercise that are appealing, and even achievable, are not the same for a 15-year-old boy as for an 85-year-old woman.

So it’s surprising the Move It AUS campaign will move away from this “fragmented” approach and target the whole population.

It’s also counter-intuitive to emphasise Australia as a “sporting nation”. We might watch a lot of sport, but only one-quarter of us play organised sport and only half of us meet the physical activity recommendations.

The Move It AUS campaign’s presumably big budget is a definite plus, and there are encouraging references to building partnerships, providing infrastructure and providing “nudges” in the community.

If the government is serious about making us more active, let’s hope it listens to the evidence and develops a sustained multi-component intervention. Australians don’t just need to be told to “Move It” – we need to be provided with resources, information, incentives and extensive on-the-ground support to help us be more active.

Read more: Are you walking your dog enough?

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