Inertia, Newton and re-igniting physical activity

Dan Gipple, BetterPoints CEO - 03 May 2017

A number of months ago, I was sitting in a seminar up at Edge Hill University in West Lancashire pondering a diagram that was placed on a screen by an NHS consultant, called the "Cycle of Inactivity”. Maybe you have seen this before...

Think of a circular clockwise diagram that depicts how a person might stop doing something physical because they feel tired or out of breath and then they avoid doing further exercise. Then, because they are overall less active, they get tired more easily and feel even less like doing anything physical. The next thing is that they start to feel depressed, weaker and more lethargic and feel even less like doing something physical.

So in the end, they sit there, feeling isolated and with some loss of self esteem and overall, it all very quickly becomes a declining cycle that the person finds it very difficult to escape from. And so they say 'hey, why should I bother... I cannot do it… I am alright where I am’. This was not exactly a happy diagram to ponder (and at the time, I could think of many other areas of people’s lives where similar cycles can occur: a poor diet; finding it tough to get a job; feeling like its just not worth it to try to get out of debt).

When I saw this “Cycle of Inactivity” diagram, I immediately thought about Newton’s First Law of Motion which basically says that an object at rest will stay at rest unless a greater external force forces it to move. But I also thought "Hey, this diagram is a little more complicated than Newton’s Law because it says that a person “at rest” (e.g. physically inactive) is going to be over time increasingly “at rest” where there is an increasing amount of resistance or level of inertia, and in theory the amount of force required to get the person moving again increases as well. Perhaps there is a “law of increasing inactivity inertia” - where inactive people become "more stuck" in being inactive over time.

My meandering thoughts about Newton came back to me last month. The British Heart Foundation released a new report that stated that about 20 million UK adults were officially “inactive” (i.e. performed less than 150 minutes a week of physical activity). If we leave young children, babies and toddlers out of the calculation, this says that about one third of everyone in the country is metaphorically “an object at rest” according to Newtonian lingo. And it's worth noting the figures are far higher than this in certain areas of the UK and the impact upon the NHS (£1.2b+ per year in cost), workplace productivity, neighbourhoods, etc is enormous.

I believe that, at some point, we all had intrinsic desires and needs around being active and achieving things: running about, playing some sport, learning things, going places, being involved with people around us or in the community (I am not alone in this belief: all this is all wonderfully described in something called Self-Determination theory if you wish to check it out).

But it's massively important to recognise that not everyone gets the same shot pursuing or living that out: postcode lottery applies and some of us are injured or ill; some have lost jobs; some people are under great stress and pressure from circumstances or environment and for many people, choices and options can narrow - all of which can lead eventually into increasing cycles of inactivity.

When this happens, belief builds in people that they don’t have much choice, hope declines and the desire to be active and get out and achieve things and be with people, etc… over time goes to sleep. In other words, “an internal pilot light goes out” and a greater "force" has to happen to re-ignite that desire.

There are a number of physical activity reward oriented programmes and apps out there that attempt to provide this re-ignition. But, to be direct: there is a big problem here that if you just offer the singular instrument of lots of “points” on its own; it's just an external motivation that takes the place of the internal motivation BUT DOES NOT RE-IGNITE ANYTHING INTERNALLY… INTRINSICALLY. Take away the points and the motivation stops.

At BetterPoints we understand this and know how to re-ignite internal motivations through a pretty smart behavioural change approach. We deliver bespoke programmes designed for the needs of specific target groups, we deliver relevant positive external influences via specific content and offering tailored activities to do that are actually achievable but very crucially, get people to attend events, do things with other people and relate.

We also communicate people’s progress and praise and feedback when people do a bit more; and, importantly, show people there are really good personal benefits as well as rewards for doing things.

Over the last four years of programmes, we have built up our own knowledge and evidence on how to reignite internal belief, hope and desire where regardless of where someone is, they can discover that it is really worth it to take some small steps to get active and feel better.

We know that no one is going to get out of a deep cycle of inactivity in one go. But all it takes is to a motivate someone to want inside themselves to take a step… and then another… and then another.