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will ‘nudging’ work?


The government’s ‘nudge’ approach to improving public health – encouraging people to make healthier choices by making these the more accessible option – may struggle to make an impression, because the lure of unhealthy choices remains so much stronger. This is the conclusion of new research carried out by the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at Cambridge University. Bad nudges work better than good nudges, explained professor


Theresa Marteau, director of the research unit, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last month. We can try and change the environment to promote good choices, but unless we eradicate the bad nudges, people won’t make the necessary changes to their lifestyle. So what does this mean for the health and fitness industry, and should the findings really come as a


surprise? We have, for a number of years, been plateauing at a population penetration rate of around 12 per cent in the UK. Even among these people – the membership-holding few – a large proportion will only attend the gym a couple of times a month. We’re surely well aware already of the appeal of unhealthy choices, whether that’s an active choice to go to the pub rather than the gym or a more passive decision not to leave the sofa. Even if we do coax someone in the right


If we’re failing to nudge even existing members towards achieving their fi tness goals, how can we hope to nudge the disinterested, sometimes even downright apathetic, masses into the gym?


direction, will they be a permanent convert? Research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine suggests not: in a recent US study, those offered financial incentives to lose weight began to pile the pounds back on once the monetary carrot had gone. Our sector’s approach to customer service


is another factor here: how many times will a new member put up with being told that induction appointments aren’t available, a class


is cancelled or they’re 10th on the waiting list before they slip back into their old habits? We need to ask ourselves if we’re actually the source of many of the ‘bad’ nudges putting people off going to the gym. And ultimately, if we’re failing to nudge even existing members towards achieving their goals – or worse


still, actively putting up barriers to dissuade them – how can we hope to nudge the disinterested, sometimes even downright apathetic, masses into the gym in the first place? It’s hard enough encouraging someone to choose dried fruit over chocolate to satisfy a sweet tooth. Going into a gym takes time and, frankly, hurts. Our industry can be guilty at times of preaching to the converted, or even falsely projecting our own enthusiastic attitudes towards exercise onto others, but here’s a reality check: most people don’t relish the ‘burn’ of the gym. It’s going to take one hell of a nudge to get them through our doors. So what can we do? Many bad nudges will be beyond our control – although we absolutely must


address those occurring within our clubs – but let’s at least do everything we can to change perceptions so choosing fitness seems less painfully, inaccessibly, unappealingly virtuous, such a lecturingly ‘good’ nudge. Yes, some people will be persuaded by the long-term health benefits, and education around these will certainly play a role, but the more we can do to make fitness less of an exclusive club, the better. Let’s go out into the community and make exercise fun, social and almost a by-product that slips in under the radar of another, more enjoyable, activity. That would surely be a good start.


Kate Cracknell, editor katecracknell@leisuremedia.com


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