It’s likely you’ll put things like money, work, fomo, and travel before your health again in 2017. This will happen even though you would probably be more productive at work, feel better, perform at a higher capacity, and consequently make more money and increase the likelihood of advancing your career. Furthermore, being healthy and having higher energy levels provides one with more opportunity to socialize with friends and take vacation time rather than sick time. However, the link between fitness and regular exercise, and making more money and getting more out of life, are rarely identified as having a strong correlation.
I’ve for a long time understood this concept in practice because of my work as a health coach, but it has become much clearer and easier for me to articulate to my clients based on my exposure to the work done by two prominent behavioral psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverky. As a team, Daniel and Amos developed what’s known as prospect theory. Initially framed in financial terms, it is a theory that asserts peoples’ value of perceived losses or perceived gains under a certain idea of risk are, in short, inconsistent.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself: what does finance have to do with fitness? Well, along with identifying this inconsistency of sensitivity to negative rather than positive change being greater, these psychologists realized that, generally speaking, humans are pleasure-seeking machines and this theory is not specific to monetary outcomes. In fact, quoting from the book The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, which explores the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverky, “for most people the happiness in receiving a desirable object is smaller than the unhappiness involved in losing the same object.”
This human miscalculation of always seeking immediate pleasure and assigning more emotional distress to our perceived loss rather than our perceived gains affects fitness misbehavior only to the degree at which you can understand it in terms of fitness frame and risk of health.
When framed correctly we understand that, for some of us, there is the perception that working out takes time away from something else - something that will give us a more immediate and pleasurable experience or feeling. As an illustration, the pleasure of sitting on the couch relaxing watching your favorite TV show, drinking at happy hour, or seeing your kids for an extra hour. So, the pain of losing that time to working out, which could not only be perceived as uncomfortable, but also enlists a fear of failing to achieve your fitness goals (even though you have forgone immediate and definite pleasure) is greater than the pain you allow yourself to feel when you miss your workout and the opportunity to become healthier, live longer, and spend more quality time with your friends or kids. In other words, the “risk” of being less healthy doesn’t act well enough to outweigh your risk of pleasure loss.
There’s a lot to digest here about our thought process and it can get overwhelming if you let it, however, the take-away should be positive. After all, if as a species we didn't evolve to avoid pain, we probably wouldn’t still be around. The point I took away from learning this information was that although we as humans are very intelligent, we are still capable of flawed thinking. It’s likely that we will continue to make mistakes and on occasion make bad decisions, but if we understand this theory and the fact that our heuristics aren’t always right, we have the opportunity to think a bit deeper about our decisions, and thus make better choices.
Next time you are wavering about your decision to workout or make a healthier choice, consider your loses in not so immediate terms. Think about how the possibilities play out in all situations. Allow yourself to be less emotional about the decision and more objective. If you can change your behavior, you can change your life.