Colleen Kay Porter: What's it take to get you off the couch and on your feet?


Published: Monday, March 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 1:17 a.m.

In the debate over health care reform, some critics complain that current proposals aren't even about health care (preventing disease) but only about medical care (treating illness and injury).

Exercise tops the list of things that could improve the health of Americans. Regular exercise lowers risk of heart disease, helps prevent injury, promotes weight loss, builds strong bones, and creates a more positive mood. Exercise also lowers risk of some cancers, notably colon and breast.

With all those good reasons, why don't more of us have a pattern of regular exercise?

A local gym tells me that their attendance booms each January in a rush of resolutions, then fades in mid-February. Not only do the number of visits peak in January, but it's also the month with most new memberships.

So how to keep going past January?

Last June the National Institutes of Health convened a conference on the "Science of Behavior Change," looking at approaches for encouraging healthy choices, including exercise. One research finding: "There appears to be somewhat more variability in the way people respond to exercise, both physiologically and psychologically.… Interventions tailored to differences in these interacting variables across levels would likely have better outcomes than a generic exercise intervention."

So different approaches work for different people. And just knowing something is good for you may not be enough motivation to get people to make the investment in a new, uncomfortable behavior.

If it isn't merely making a wise choice that gets people off the couch, what does work?

For some, exercise is a social event. Studies show that having a workout buddy is correlated with persistence in an exercise program. Whether it is a neighbor who power-walks every morning or a spotter for weight-lifting, having a partner can help keep one keeping on.

Some exercisers enjoy meeting interesting people, and seeing older folks who are great role models; a gym is one of those rare settings where participants from their teens to their silver years can freely mingle.

As an introvert, those social aspects are less appealing. For me, I keep going back to the gym not because of who I will see, but because it is a place apart, to think and be left alone. I also enjoy solitary Sunday afternoon walks while I listen to church-related music on the iPod.

One theory that explains why a gym can appeal to both socialites and introverts is the notion of a gym as a "third place."

Long before the "Third Place" was a popular Haile Plantation restaurant, it was a concept posited by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg. A "third place" is an informal meeting place distinct from home (our first place) and work (second place, where we may spend most of our waking hours).

The U.S. sitcom "Cheers" or the U.K. "Coronation Street" are TV shows about fictional third places.

I couldn't find a study about the gym as third place, but it seems to fit many of the criteria.

For me, the gym serves a positive function that has little to do with the benefits of exercise. It provides an opportunity to let my body do the work while my mind disengages, and in so doing often solves problems or comes up with new ideas ("Ma'am, is something wrong? You've been staring at that machine for three minutes").

And I enjoy going to aerobics classes because after a long day of making decisions and giving clear orders to student helpers, children, etc. it is so relaxing to let someone else be in charge and tell me what to do.

Then too, as a mother and homemaker, my home is another place of work for me; there is always something to wash or fix. At the gym, everything is clean without me doing the work.

It was a particularly nurturing place for me when we had five children at home and my husband was traveling a lot. I would take the kids to the gym's nursery, exercise, sit in the sauna and read. It provided a break from the demands of the day.

Oh, yeah, as it happens, I did have a bone scan that shows my hip density is normal, which is an accomplishment for a petite Irish woman of my age. But I didn't do all those years of strength training just for my health, and physical benefits aren't enough to maintain my motivation to keep exercising.

My choices are not logical, and probably seem random and useless to health planners. But to be honest, it's the third place that keeps me exercising.

Colleen Kay Porter is a Gainesville mother and grandmother and a researcher at UF.

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