Regular readers of my blog likely know the “Dan” I am referring to.
It’s Dan Ariely, a leading behavioral economist, and best-selling author. Dan has a biweekly advice column in the Wall Street Journal that has often provided me with ideas for my blog, and today’s column is no exception.
Here is the email in question:
My husband is 72 years old and recently retired. He goes to the gym about twice a week, but his doctor has told him that physical activity throughout the day is very important for him, since he has hypertension. How can I help him get into the habit of moving around? We are a pretty low-tech family, but should I get him a pedometer so he can track his steps? —Florence
and here is Dan’s response:
I don’t think that tracking steps is going to get the job done by itself. Tracking devices operate on the premise that, if we only knew we exercised too little, we would change our behavior. But the truth is that most of us already know we don’t move around enough. If I were you, I would ask family members to encourage your husband to go for walks several times a day. Even better, tell him that you want to go for a walk and suggest that he come with you. That way you will create social pressure on him to get moving.
My first concern with Dan’s response is that I’m not sure where he came up with the notion that tracking devices act on the premise that if we knew we exercised too little, we would change our behavior. I’ve never heard of that as the reason for using a fitness tracker. I think fitness trackers serve to motivate people to keep track of their exercise and to see if they are on target for achieving their fitness goals. Dan knows nothing about this 72-year old man that he is giving advice too; maybe he’s a gadget freak and would love using a fitness tracker. I’m personally a big fan of such devices, and I’m not someone who exercises too little.
Second, getting family members to encourage this 72-year old man to walk several times a day seems questionable at best, and dangerous at worst. The first thing this recent retiree should get is a complete physical to find out what type and level of exercise he is ready for. If he is not used to walking, then trying to get him to walk several times a day could be not only mentally overwhelming but physically as well.
Even if I were giving exercise advice to a 20-year old, the basic idea is the same, but even more important for a 72-year old. Start slowly, and build up gradually. Look for variety in an exercise routine. Walking is great, and perhaps the best form of cardio exercise for a 72-year old. But he might like to occasionally try an exercise bike, or a rowing machine, or swimming. Having a variety of options to choose from will be helpful if the weather is not cooperative for walking outside. Flexibility is also important, so adding some stretching or yoga would be beneficial. And it sounds like he is already going to the gym for some strength training, and so that should be encouraged as well. Having such variety may make it more likely he will continue his exercise routine.
I do agree that it would be great to get others to exercise with him; for many people, adding a social component to the exercise routine may be what they enjoy the most and so will keep them engaged. (Personally, I like to do cardio by myself, with no distractions).
I might also recommend that it may be helpful to hire a personal trainer or to find a fitness class that is geared towards 70-year olds, and are familiar with working with people who have hyomicspertension. Knowing how to train such an individual is a different skill set than knowing how to train a 24-year old athlete.
And don’t forget the importance of diet and how it could be helpful in treating hypertension.
Certainly, there is a big behavioral component associated with getting someone to commit to an exercise routine. But there is the physical part of it as well, and if that is not handled properly, all the incentives in the world will be for naught if someone is injured or put at risk because of inadequate attention to the physical abilities of the individual in question.
So my advice?
Get a checkup, hire a qualified trainer, start slowly, set some short-range and long-range exercise goals, add some variety to your routine, have fun, and watch what you eat.
Man, I wish the Wall Street Journal would give me my own advice column. I wonder if Dan Ariely would ever critique what I had to say…