As a psychologist and exercise scientist, I’ve always been intrigued by the paradox of exercise. What is that? It’s the observation that even though we know physical activity is good for us we tend to not do enough of it. Another way to put this is we fail to act in our own self-interest, despite the constant presence of good health promotion messages.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this paradox over the past 3 years and how it might be better approached. After reflecting on my own reconnection to physical activity and analysing the experience of others, I’m convinced that to help people get moving and keep moving, you need to give them a way of really owning their health goals.
The Health Activation Process (HAP)
The HAP is specifically designed to help people take greater ownership over their health. It does that by assuming people have an intrinsic interest in physical activity and movement. They had it as kids but lost it as adults. This makes the change process about helping people reconnect with interests that may already be there and just need to be surfaced.
It also means the change process doesn’t need to be pushy or prescriptive. Because goal ownership is rarely enhanced by telling people what to do, it is better to give people some time to work it out for themselves by exploring what’s interesting and what might be possible. The 4 stages to the health activation process are:
This stage is about looking back in time and thinking about all the times when physical activity was positive and enjoyable for you. Whilst these memories might take a little while to surface, it is worth persisting. If they can be recalled and relived, these memories can provide a good starting point for change. Key activities in this stage can include drawing up a physical activity timeline (to trigger useful memories) and reminiscing about past experiences by contacting old teammates, or looking at old photos, trophies or mementos.
Next, it’s important to spend some time looking forwards and clarifying what someone is hoping to achieve. If healthier ageing is the goal (as it is likely to be), what does that really mean? What would it enable for you? How might it benefit others? This is important for getting clear on the why of change, which is critical for supporting ongoing effort. Key activities in this stage can include writing a compelling 25-year personal vision statement and developing awareness of the what’s driving the desire for healthier ageing.
This stage is about looking inwards and assessing our physical and mental readiness for change. Both are important. Physical readiness because it’s important to match physical pursuits with current capabilities. Mental readiness because any uncertainty or lack of interest can quickly become demotivating. Key activities in this stage can include completing a valid pre-exercise screening tool and getting a health check (to assess physical readiness) and examining the pros and cons of making and not making change (to assess mental readiness).
Lastly, it’s also important to spend some time looking outwards, to help organise and access social support. This involves the formation of a physical activity eco-system, a network of people, teams, clubs and/or organisations that can support and encourage, helping to keep activity levels high, and levels of enjoyment even higher. Key activities in this stage can include identifying the most desirable forms of help, and embedding the notion of a personal eco-system by mind-mapping one’s existing support and resources.
These four steps provide a chance to pause and pre-plan before you rush off and join the gym again, and ensures you make long-lasting change.