Confessions in the gym – or, How to use peer pressure for your benefit

by | Aug 1, 2014 | Exercise, Fitness & Rehab, Personal Stories | 1 comment

The other day I’m bounding in to the gym where I work out and I see Steve – the head trainer.

‘How ya doing, Doc?’ he says.

‘I’m doing fine. But I haven’t been getting to the gym that regularly,’ I respond, feeling slightly guilt-ridden to confess my slothfulness.

‘Don’t tell me about it – do it for yourself, man, not for me,’ he answers.

Is he right?  Is the best motivational plan to ‘do it for yourself’?

I begin to think about how absurd my attitude is. Why do I adopt an almost apologetic tone with Steve? Shouldn’t I be exercising for myself? For my own health? Rather than to impress a trainer with my diligence?

It’s not that Steve doesn’t care about me – I’m sure he gets a kick of satisfaction when he sees “his members” building fitness safely and effectively.

But he’s not exactly keeping tabs on my comings and goings. He certainly understands that people have busy lives with competing responsibilities. What’s more, I bet his exercise habits aren’t so perfect either.

Soon I’ve convinced myself that my reaction is irredeemably immature. I vow to raise my game: define my own goals and work consistently to achieve them, driven by internal motivation.

But then I had a further revelation

I’m sure I’m not unique – Steve must hear a lot of gym members respond the way that I did. Many people act as if they “owe it” to their trainer to keep a firm exercise commitment.

And not only at the gym – the world is full of folks who express guilt to their yoga teacher when they haven’t been getting to class regularly. And people who are embarrassed when they see their dentist in the supermarket because they haven’t been flossing twice a day.

And people who scramble to organize their financial records so they won’t be ashamed when they meet with their accountant.

And so on and so forth.

The fact is most people aren’t motivated to do good things for themselves based solely on internalized goals.

Most people try to please other people, at least to some degree.

Most people try to look good in the eyes of their peers and want approval from “experts.”

Most people try to live up to an external standard that they imagine others aspire to live up to.

Seems immature on first glance. But here’s my further revelation: Maybe that isn’t such a terrible thing.

If a behavioral pattern is so prevalent, maybe, instead of dismissing it as a useless vestige from middle school, it pays to consider that it may have a benign purpose.

Make your doctor happy

Here’s another example:

We don’t entirely understand how it works, but the “placebo” effect is one of the most powerful healing processes known to science.

One thing we do know is that some doctors are better at eliciting a strong placebo reaction than others. Why?

One theory says simply that patients engage their internal healing powers – their placebo response – more strongly if they like their doctor. They want to make their doctor happy. This desire unconsciously drives their internal health behavior to help them rebound from illness and heal from injury more quickly.

Rather than shun the “placebo effect” as being somehow unscientific, a rational approach to healthcare should try to enhance it as much as possible. After all, it leads to positive results.

Go ahead – like your doctor. Try to make him (or her) happy. Get better faster.

Choose your peers wisely – you’ll react to their pressure whether you want to or not

The same principle can be used to pursue any health goal.

Want to lose weight? Find a person (or group) who will be impressed with you if you shed ten pounds. Then try to make that person happy.

Need to quit smoking? Don’t do it for yourself. Do it to prove something to another person.

The key is to choose your peers wisely. Here are three principles to guide you:

  • Don’t pick people who are too judgmental. It won’t work. In fact, research shows that it’s harder to lose weight if you work with a doctor who you think is judgmental.
  • It’s also important to pick peers who you respect; people whose positive regard means something to you.
  • Also pick peers with whom you have an uncomplicated emotional relationship (probably not your spouse). That way the emotional calculus is straightforward. You won’t act out irresponsibly to indirectly “send a message” to this person.

Following these tips will help you achieve the results you want in health and in life.

Dr. Lavine has been an innovator in the use of movement and touch to promote health since 1981. He practices in New York City and Princeton, NJ.


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1 Comment

  1. George Blomme

    Very good, very useful article Ron.


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