Exercise Can Be Punishing—but It Doesn’t Have to Be

By Andy Levy, Edge Hill University
July 21, 2017 4:09 pm Last Updated: July 21, 2017 4:09 pm

The fitness industry is said to be worth 4.4 billion pounds ($5.7 billion) in the United Kingdom 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 the problem 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 of 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 20 million people living in the U.K. are physically inactive. To be considered active, the U.K. 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?

One reason that inactive people may not exercise enough is that it’s 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 often seen as more enjoyable.

Exercise as Punishment

The treadmill was originally devised as a form of punishment for convicted criminals in the Victorian era. In those days, prisoners had to undertake long hours of hard labor 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 behavior in schools. In 2014, then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan proposed to ban the use of exercise as a form of punishment in schools, for fear that it would put children off being active.

Given that exercise has a lengthy historical association with punishment and obedience, can 21st-century society ever truly accept exercise as an enjoyable leisure pursuit? At present, the high volume of inactivity levels in the U.K. suggests many people are not motivated to exercise. Getting more active, therefore, would require a mental shift—exercising because we want to, not because we have to.

Making It Social

(Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock)
(Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock)

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. Social psychological science has consistently demonstrated that people are motivated to seek social connections in order to fulfill 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 that people have positive social exercise experiences that enrich their quality of life. In doing so, they make the pursuit of exercise a more satisfying and worthwhile activity. This can be achieved by creating exercise environments that provide a sense of social connectedness, creating opportunities for people to form friendships and mutually supportive relationships.

For example, the EuroFit program takes a unique approach to improving men’s health and fitness by allowing fans to exercise in their favorite professional soccer club. City Ride events allow people of all ages and abilities to enjoy cycling together through the streets of a vibrant, traffic-free environment. Similarly, walking sports (competitive sports slowed down to walking pace) offer a social atmosphere of fun and camaraderie for those who want to avoid 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.

Andy Levy, Reader in Psychology, Edge Hill University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.