Fun fact: did you know that the burpee was invented by – I can’t make this up – Royal H. Burpee?

Is it better to reinforce good exercise habits or to punish unhealthy ones?

Much of the research out there is cognitive or cognitive-behavioral. Frederick-Recascino and Shuster-Smith (2003) looked at motivations for exercise (using the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation framework, which as behavior analysts is a little dubious). They administered a battery of surveys to two groups – competitive cyclists and casual undergraduate exercisers who received credit for class for completing the survey. Predictably, the competitive exercisers did so more often and were more “sport competitive.” Those who were casual exercisers were a bit more competitive overall and more motivated by appearance. Ko (2010 – behind a paywall) determined that martial artists were most interested in self-development and actualization, but that actual motivators were pretty variable.

Obviously, reinforcers and punishers are unique to each individual’s learning and genetic history, but does that help Ms. Gym Owner who wants to increase business?

Kubanek, et al., (2015) talked about how reinforcer magnitude was associated with performance. The bigger the reinforcer, the better the performance. Punishers work differently. In their words, “the data suggest that rewards and penalties are fundamentally distinct factors in governing behavior.” Punishment had a more robust, immediate effect. This should come as no surprise, right? However, the popular press soon jumped to the conclusion that punishment is better than reinforcement. When I read the article, I saw something a little more nuanced. But that also should not be too surprising:

The science news cycle

This article by Shape Magazine suggests an approach that is more compatible with what we know about reinforcement and punishment – yes, punishment works. Use a little, not a lot. But also make sure to reinforce appropriate behavior.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a book on Positive Behavior Support in physical fitness. I haven’t ordered it yet or read it, so I can’t say whether it will answer my question. There is a chapter on ethics that I’m looking forward to reading to see if it aligns with the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts.

This also looks like a fertile area of research for behavior analysts. Looking forward to seeing more articles on motivating the average person to exercise!

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