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First posted on Venture Valkyrie on 02/21/2013

Lisa Suennen, The Venture Valkyrie

People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing.–Dale Carnegie

Exercise.  To some people the word is an inspiration–it is what they want to go out and do and it turns them on.  But for most people the word “exercise” strikes fear in their hearts and makes them try to rationalize how opening and closing the refrigerator door can count as a form of bicep curl.

One of the main reasons people hate to exercise is they perceive it as NOT FUN AT ALL.  They view standing inside a glass enclosed building space walking on a treadmill or stairmaster as something best left to hamsters in habitrails.  In fact, if you look at a hamster habitrail cage, the exercise features in it actually look fun, whereas the stairmaster looks like something you might sentence someone to when capital punishment isn’t enough.

Judge:  You are guilty of the crime and I am sentencing you to one hour per day on the stairmaster.

Criminal: No, anything but that!  Please just kill me now.

Or that’s how I imagine the dialogue goes.

Habitrail for hamsters; better than the gym

Habitrail for hamsters; better than the gym

I saw a clip on CNN about how trainers at the Oregon Zoo were presented with a challenge to provide an old, arthritic sea otter with a form of exercise to help prolong its life in comfort.  Rather than rig up a tiny little swim master, which would have probably sent the sea otter straight for the shellfish known to be toxic, the trainers dreamed up how to teach the furry dude how to play basketball in order to keep his joints supple.  Now that’s fun.  What otter, or person, wouldn’t be willing to engage in fun disguised as exercise, particularly when you get to dunk a basketball like Spud Webb AND be rewarded with a treat at the end.  Yeah, baby, nothing but net.

We have to figure out how to make exercise fun for humans if we are going to get more of us to exercise and improve our health, and thus increase quality of life and reduce healthcare costs (and make angels sing, no doubt).  Everyone already knows that getting more exercise is a good idea.  I could cite a million statistics but everyone has already heard them all, reading these statistics, as they do, from their couch while balancing a carton of Haagen Dazs on their knee. The challenge is helping people find a way to exercise that is motivating not because “it’s good for you,” but because it’s a blast and you completely forget it’s good for you.

Looks a tad lonely there on the fake street

Looks a tad lonely there on the fake street

And yes, I have seen all those video game style programs from Kinnect and Wi that encourage people to move in their living room, but I’m not sure that is a reliable way to build a long-term culture of exercise among the masses.  Yes, it is engaging for a while, but very few people commit to these games for the long haul and often they are done in isolation and don’t get people out into the fresh air.  Electronically-guided exercise may be a part of a solution, but it isn’t quite the same, in my personal opinion, as getting people out and about in actual social settings where there are people who are not in the form of avatars.  On the plus side, I appreciate an avatar that makes me look tall.

Into the breach comes some very creative thinking from the people who brought us the less-than-evident but generally amusing marketing slogan “fahrvergnügen.”  Our friends at Volkswagen have created a program called The Fun Theory, which is “dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.”  Germans are not usually the people you leave in charge of bringing fun to the party, but go figure; they are known for Oktoberfest so maybe they are exactly the right people to get this particular party started.

volkswagen-1In addition to solving the world’s greatest problems, such as how to get men to lift the toilet seat and how to get people use recycle bins, The Fun Theory has  also looked at how to get people in public places to use the stairs instead of the escalator–in other words, to make the better health choice by making it fun.  Take a look at what they came up with, as it is a great lesson in thinking outside the box and a wonderful example of how our nation’s public health leaders can help engage the public in healthy behaviors in spite of themselves.