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Choice architectures and role models

I recently read about the failure of physical activity interventions for children. It seems that well-intentioned and well-designed interventions succeed in increasing children’s daily physical activity by a meager five minutes – but this increase doesn’t last past the first few weeks. Clearly, we’re missing something.

Divide between exercise and everyday physical activity has become stark. People often wonder about my willingness to walk distances that are more than a mile. Sometimes, these are the same people who go for ten-mile runs every other day. I need both in order to feel good. I spend so much time in front of a computer that whenever there’s a chance to take a few extra steps, I’ll jump for it. Sometimes literally.

Are we missing the base of the pyramid?

The problem is that the Western environment and lifestyle has become extremely aversive towards everyday physical activity. Hotels are one of the clearest examples: I’ve noticed that the fancier the hotel, the more likely it is that it’s impossible to take the stairs. The doors are locked, only to be used in case of an emergency. What if my emergency is the urge to run up the stairs? Another thing are the lengthening commutes that even kids are having nowadays. The list goes on.

Ultimately, the choice architectures around us don’t favor walking or biking. Some cities have recognised this and really started trying to change things: sidewalks, bike lanes, bikeshare programs, free or extremely cheap public transportation.

Attitudes also need to change. This is from the NY Times article:

“Kids naturally love to run around and play,” Dr. Booth said. “But they’re just not doing it as much now. And we don’t know why. So what we really need to understand is, what’s happening to our kids that makes them quit wanting to play?”

Well, duh. They grow, start to think they they need to become adults, all serious and collected. Grown-ups don’t sprint, skip, wrestle, piggyback each other, do somersaults or anything that causes them to sweat and become out of breath, unless they are in the strictly specified context of exercise. That’s just plain silly. Fortunately there are exceptions, people who are self-confident and energetic enough to be active themselves, no matter what the context is. They’re the proper role models!

How to change choice architectures and role models? What kind of a role can technology play? I’ve started to think that its strength is in the ability to connect people, to help them become aware of other ideas and movements in real-time. The question that’s often asked, for a good reason, in my field is: “Will people who need wellness technologies use them?” The answer tends to be “couldn’t care less”.

So if they don’t care, do they really NEED the technologies, or are we just trying to create the need? The question should rather be formed in the following way: “What do people need and how can technology serve that need?” And that’s why it would be so extremely important to actually go to the people and figure out what their real needs and desires are.