Many of us want to lose a little weight and get fitter, stop smoking, drink less, eat more healthily - but struggle to put that into action in a sustainable way.
Behavioural scientists define this problem simply as the 'Intention-Action' gap - we generally have good intentions to do some or all of the things that we know are good for us - but frequently procrastinate, delay and may end up failing to execute any of them. For example, most adults know exercise is good for them and would like to do more, yet global studies have shown that between 36% to 55% of people never manage to convert intention into action.
Helping people get fit using a tailored support network and exercise programme, an innovative fitness company called EliteTogether is having astounding success in helping overweight people achieve their goals by applying a little (intuitive) BE in the programmes they run in the North East, where obesity rates are the highest in England at 31% and inactivity rates sit at 24%. Participants are regularly losing tens of pounds or more in a matter of weeks and becoming so motivated as a result that they sign up again to lose more.
EliteTogether's 7-point plan is grounded in behavioural science:
- People sign up to a concrete goal (lose 20lbs/9kg) within a 6-week deadline. Behavioural science tells us that we are more likely to be successful in achieving a goal by making it specific. It helps to make us feel more committed as it's harder to fudge the numbers. It also gets us thinking about how we might go about meeting that goal. For instance, if we need to lose 9kg in 6 weeks, it means we need to be losing around 1.5kg per week. And suddenly, we realise that this task is going to take some effort!
- And this is the innovative part - the 6-week programme is free IF people achieve their goal within the deadline. That's a £200 fee returned if they are successful. All they pay is a £20 admin fee for the 6-week block. This is a great application of loss aversion, an important concept in behavioural science which observes that losses typically loom larger than gains; so the pain of the potential payout drives participants on in striving for their goal. Pact and stickk.com websites also have a similar approach to achieving goals. The fact that the programme is advertised as free probably helps to hook people in too.
- The fitness sessions are designed and run by experienced trainers (influential authority figures) meaning that all that's required of participants is that they turn up to the session and do what they're told. When people live busy, stressful lives which are already full of decisions and choices it helps to have a decision free zone every once in a while. Like the successful British Military Fitness programmes, the sessions help keep motivation high and also means participants aren't taxed by thinking about what exercises to do, when and for how long - tricky stuff when you're a fitness novice and exhausted already. In addition to three supervised training sessions at their low-key studio each week, people are also given a tailored meal plan and list of additional training sessions to complete in their own time, providing further structure. Interestingly, EliteTogether don't even call themselves a 'gym', reframing themselves as a support network, and moving away from traditional perceptions of what it means to exercise.
- Every week, there is a weigh-in providing regular feedback on progress to target. Psychologists have found that receiving personalised, regular feedback is a key motivating factor for most people which can keep them engaged and ultimately help them to achieve a goal. Knowing we are making progress week on week can help us believe a goal is possible.
- The group context removes key barriers to participation. Since all participants have weight to lose there is a common purpose and a sense of ease and belonging because everyone is in the same boat which reduces anxiety and embarrassment about being seen in bulging lycra or struggling to run or lift weights. The studios are private which removes a key social barrier and the often underestimated fear of attending a commercial gym where overweight people may feel intimidated. These peer effects or social norms help bond people together and foster a sense of shared mutual support, the sort of collective spirit seen in AA meetings. One participant (who lost 35lbs) said "there was a safe place I could go to, free from judgment, where everybody has the same goal."
- If people succeed in meeting their 'lose 20lbs in 6 weeks' goal, they can roll their £200 cash back straight into a new 6-week block with a new goal of an additional 20lbs to lose. This makes it easy to sign up to another course and reduces the pain of paying. Participants, flush with success, may also be elated and in what behavioural scientists call a 'hot state' - an excited, emotional state of mind - spurring them on to sign up to do it all again...
- Breaking weight loss down into 20lb targets also helps to chunk up a broader goal to 'lose weight' into a series of more manageable and achievable, interim goals. Research has found that small, initial wins or progress can build a sense of momentum to motivate and drive us to keep going. One participant said "I'm going on to do it again in January as I have loved the success I have had and feel so much better within myself and I'm excited to get started on smashing another 20lbs."