To Incentivise Exercise

A question I’ve pondered over the years as an advocate of physical exercise is how one encourages others to get involved. Is it enough to preach about the benefits or do we need to incentivise exercise?

My position now is almost the polar opposite of the childhood me and it’s from this that I get fired up about the subject.

From denial to advocate

I went to school in the 1980s. I attended the local comprehensive which took pupils in the 11-16 years age range. At the time there were about 900 pupils at the school spread over 5 year groups. Breaktimes were spend out in the yards / playgrounds and there was one for the upper school and one for the lower school. During the break times the pupils were basically left to get on with it, so some went off and kicked a ball around, others stood around chatting within their friendship groups and no doubt a number were behind the bikesheds doing a few unapproved non-curricular activities.

This was fine for me, I was in the middle group nattering away to my friends about music, videos, computers and whatever was on the TV. This was the age prior to the existence of mobile phones and so the idea of staring at friend requests on Facebook or cat videos had yet to be invented.

One of the things that united my peer group was that we were considered as the Physical Education (PE) dregs. We were the clutter left at the end when during PE they were choosing their teams and they got down to the dregs and they had to work out who got saddled with each of us. So it was a very demoralising time, not least because we only ever played football at school, and when you’re listed as someone not very good at sport you feel very much outside the ‘in-crowd’.


Unfortunately this feeling of sport alienation continued with me until my early 30s when I was persuaded by a close friend to run in the Greater Manchester 10k (which I think is happening this coming weekend in 2016). IO’d put some weight on and the GP surgery strongly recommended that I lost that weight again.  I discovered that running was something that I was not terrible at and as such I began building up some sporting self-esteem. Note that this doesn’t mean I’m a great runner, an Olympic hopeful or even someone who would stand out of the crowd. I’m simply not terrible at running.


A lot of this was reinforced to me when speaking to an old school friend who was part way through the Couch to 5k programme and we were discussing the impact of being the ‘dregs’ of the school sports field. We shared that feeling of alienation and the lasting fear of doing any sport. The difference was that I’d started running a few years earlier, and lost my hang-ups about it; my friend was still working through them.

Read all about it – popular media

Now there is a lot in the media these days about the obesity crisis in the UK and the generally poor level of exercise by the majority of the population, and it had me thinking about the whole world of trying to get people to engage with sport, especially having my background of having been actively discouraged from sport in my formative years. And this before the world of networked online computer games and mobile phone apps to occupy your mind without ever having to get up from the sofa (aside from bodily ablutions as I’m not aware of an iPee app available yet – although it gives a whole new meaning to Wii-Fit).


One of the obstacles facing people who realise they need to get fit is one of self-perception and of self-image. They imagine what they are going to look like and what other people are going to think about it. In a world of self obsession and celebrity culture this isn’t a major surprise, but it’s no less helpful all the same. I hear of people who will only run in the dark so that others can’t see them, and that’s a real shame that they feel that way. In fact the reality of the situation is that most people would be impressed by the effort, and likely those that scoff about it probably are in denial about the extra pounds that they’re carrying and that the gym membership they have (but never use) will somehow make it go away.

Women seem to lead in this fear of what other people think, and as such the This Girl Can campaign has been created to help bridge this barrier and show that regardless of your perception of yourself and others, you can go out and do it. Men as well feel this way, and in some ways it’s a more difficult taboo to break as men traditionally aren’t supposed to be concerned about self image in the same way that traditionally women are.

Either way, it affects everyone, regardless of age, sex, ability and more. It can seem like a big thing to go outside and run “in public” but the fact is that if you’re thinking this, you’re not alone.

The great thing about running is you don’t need much, if any, gear. You see I run in whatever clothing suits me; it’s likely to be a T-shirt that really has seen better days and some trackkies which were never in fashion in the first place. Just as long as your trainers are comfortable to jog in, well that’s the main thing. Don’t be put off by the fashion industry trying to get into this market; having a brand name on a t-shirt isn’t going to affect your ability to run  – just do what you’re doing and enjoy it. What you often find, especially within the very accessible ParkRun movement is a family atmosphere of people wanting each other to succeed. And that’s a nice place to be.

To Incentivise Exercise – a good idea?

So I’ve avoided the topic of Incentivisation so far. In many ways, it’s coming back to how can we get ourselves fitter. Ultimately the only real losers to not keeping our bodies in shape is ourselves and our families. Do you want to risk not seeing your grandchildren grow up because you’ve passed on due to an illness that was entirely preventable. Worse, how would you feel going to the funeral of your child that has passed due to a (short) lifelong poor diet and lack of exercise, both of which are preventable.

Sometimes it’s something as simple as doing something with a friend. That works, it’s how I got into running and ultimately cycling as well (a colleague talked me into doing a charity bike ride with him). Bringing your own ‘safe person’ with you helps to distract you away from thinking that the world is judging you (which it’s not).

Often the ‘raising money for charity’ aspect gets people into doing something new, such as participating in a group run. And whilst this can be quite a positive thing, there is a risk that it becomes entirely about the charitable action and the health benefits actually seem to become a grind which will ultimately be dumped the moment you cross the line in the charity event. Getting the enjoyment out of the doing is necessary to making a difference, otherwise you won’t want to do it! Smaller step-wise goals help to make the total journey seem more attainable and give rewards during the work rather than just at the end.

Possibly a big one for me with running is to do it somewhere nice. I spent years stomping up and down the tarmac of Stockport despite being on the edge of Derbyshire and Cheshire and with several National Trust properties with lots of land all within a short travelling distance. As such I work for NT and lead a group at Lyme Park where I use my local knowledge to lead runners around the amazing scenery we’ve got; the event itself is what people are coming for, they just happen to get fit as a consequence of it. It’s a social occasion, we all look out for each other and despite a wide range of abilities and paces we all get around and get something out of it for ourselves. Find out about the Lyme Runners group here.



All in All?

I think it’s a difficult balance to strike, especially at the school level where there is limited contact time with a few staff members to a lot of pupils. However, the one-size-fits-all approach completely failed me and my friends and had a detrimental effect on our ability to develop any sort of sporting ability. However, whatever the background, it comes down to the individual wanting to make a change. Like anything, if your heart isn’t really in it, then it’s probably not going to happen, at least not for very long. So, take a friend along, have fun, do something like a group, do Couch 25K, but go at it to enjoy it. You’ll feel the benefits twice then, the endorphin release during the exercise and the improvement of fitness as you do more of it. Don’t care what you look like, you’re doing this for you, and yes, you’re worth it.


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