The latest wellness news from my homeland is that Britains National Health Service (NHS) will soon start offering perks and awards to people who demonstrate a commitment to getting fit. According to reports in The Telegraph and The Times, people moving into new-built houses in 10 cities will have their pick of a wide range of reward options if they hit certain exercise targets. These include free movie tickets, shopping vouchers and even free bicycles. If theres to be a much needed wave of new housebuilding across England, lets design in health from the start, Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said in a statement.
The aim of this plan is noble: to encourage people to start exercising to combat growing obesity rates. According to an NHS report released in March this year and titled Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, this is a very pressing problem, as 58 percent of British women and 68 percent of British men are overweight or obese. Yet for all of the NHSs good intentions, there are multiple issues with such a scheme.
First, its not clear what the exercise targets will be. Will they be along the lines of the 10,000 steps that fitness technology makers and government agencies encourage us to take each day in an effort to try and replicate the baseline of physical activity weve forsaken in our largely sedentary society? If so thats troubling because several recent studies, including one from earlier this year published in the International Journal of Obesity found that this amount is insufficient to reduce risk factors of heart disease and other chronic conditions. And if fitness trackers are part of the equation, we know that up to 50 percent of users stop utilizing them within 6 months.
Then theres the issue of motivation. As sports psychologist Dr. Lenny Wiersma explains in my new book with Brian Mackenzie and Dr Andy Galpin, Unplugged, extrinsic rewards are far less effective in the long term than intrinsic ones. So if you start relying on external factors like this NHS scheme to motivate you, chances are you wont stick with your fitness plan for long. Its better to find an activity you enjoy doing and then pull in a friend or family member to join you. This will keep you accountable long past the point when youd likely lose interest in a fitness trackers digital reward badges or a government health services freebies.
Mr. Stevenss quote also hints at another underlying factor that has little to nothing to do with health promoting much needed new housing in England. Heck, his quote even mentions this, which seems a little odd for an initiative thats meant to be about health and fitness. So one of the NHSs other agendas could be to press housebuilders into doing the necessary and providing additional new homes, or trying to signify that the UK government is virtuous because its trying to increase housing provisions even as it encourages people to reduce their waistlines. Regardless, such a plan is likely to fall flat. If the British government wants to really encourage increased exercise, it would do well to provide the kind of free sports facilities that were in short supply when I was growing up in England 20 years ago. And then leave it to individuals to take responsibility for themselves and their health a much more important factor in reducing obesity than any governmental behavioral modification tactics.