Not So Fast, Dan

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:

Hi Dan,

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…

8 thoughts on “Not So Fast, Dan

  1. Your answer is way better than Dan’s.
    I walk every day so I don’t need or want a tracker, but I know some people like them and ARE motivated by them.
    Instead, I’d say this is perfect place–before dispensing advice– to apply Gretchen Rubin’s theory of the 4 tendencies and figure out which applies to her husband.

    -Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense–essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations (very curious, includes many journalists, can suffer “analysis paralysis” w/ TMI

    -Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (they do for others first, often neglecting their own needs)

    -Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike (they are maddening to live with)
    Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (they are a rare and successful group)

    My husband like this 70 year old NEEDS to walk more but hates it (he’s 58). His feet hurt, hypertension, he needs to lose 40 lbs, is very sedentary.
    Fortunately, he has gotten into swimming. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do it every day and what we humans need most is DAILY movement.

    I agree with you, Jim. FYI Dan. I have been inviting him/encouraging him to walk with me for 25 years ( I walk 365 days a year x 25 years = he’s agreed to less than a handful of times. That is 9,125 rejections … so I rarely ask anymore _ even tho he now needs a walk far more than ever as he’s gained weight.

    I repeat: Your answers are far better advice, Jim. You should reach out to Dan. He seems like an approachable guy. I love his Ted Talks and books. Our fav authors seem like rock stars to us, but in an internet world with so many stars, some of these “minor” celebrities are very responsive to their superfans like you (and me :).


    1. Hi Susan. I appreciate your comments, I found Gretchen Rubin’s theories on expectations quite interesting. I’m glad your husband has started swimming. I’m not sure if he just does a certain number of laps at the same pace, but perhaps mixing it up a little bit such as by breaking a 500 yeard swim into ten 50s with 30 seconds rest in between may help break up the monotony and get him in the pool more often. And if he is a gadget guy, there are now watches that work in the pool.

      I’ve always felt that ultimately the person has to have a powerful reason/goal for wanting to commit to something long-term, particularly if it involves something they may not necessarily enjoy. And they have to believe that whatever they are committing to will help accomplish that reason/goal. Finding that reason or goal seems to be the key.

      I’ll give some thought to your suggestion to write to Dan. If there is some advice that he offers that I have strong opinions about, and can express those opinions in an intelligent way, then I might do so. Perhaps we can tag team him with a joint email someday!

      And by the way, your walking streak is quite impressive!


  2. I’ll share your post/comments in Gretchen Rubin ‘s facebook group….I’ve heard her quote Dan A. too 🙂

    Her books/podcast have really made a difference in how I talk to my husband and daughter who are both rebels.

    She suggests the the best way to try to motivate a rebels is to:
    1) appeal to their sense of identity (i.e., does he see himself as lazy or are as a “can-do” type person? Is he the kind of person who can rebel against doctor’s diagnosis (like Pat Conroy) and prove he doesn’t “have” to go on meds (with unwanted sideeffects) or can he reduce his numbers himself –by exercising and/or eating certain foods/avoiding others.

    2) You should give rebels information without trying to persuade (Don’t say: “we need to get to the airport early” but instead say, “The flight boards at 11:55am …and BTW, if you miss that flight it’s a nonrefundable ticket so your SOL if you miss it.)

    I have learned so much about why my rebel husband and rebel daughter are SO difficult to “motivate”–anything I say that would be considered helpful by others they see as nagging. So I have to use a lot of reverse psychology like they’re toddlers.

    We have a weekly movie date on Thursdays (when our son’s therapist volunteers to stay with him so we can go out). But I can’t say, “I want us to see this movie at 7pm.” I have to say “Here are the two movie choices we haven’t seen yet, one at 7:30, one at 8pm … do either look good to you?” and let him decide. It shouldn’t HAVE to be this hard, but I’ve learned only if HE makes the decision can I avoid pushback.

    Last week to get him to go for a swim, “Did you know the pool is closing at 3:30pm today? and it’s closed all day Thanksgiving Day too? I imagine it will get really crowded if you wait til the last minute to go.” He hates to have to share a lane when he swims, so that got him out of his chair to go.

    Still, I’m not sure I 100% believe Gretchen Rubin’s theory that people are mainly only 1 of the 4 tendencies. I think it depends on the task: I’m mostly a Questioner but I’m Obliger about a lot of my writing. I do so much better if I have a boss/editor telling me what to do, yet I’m an Upholder when it comes to getting my own exercise …and a rebel when it comes to trying to give up sugar or wine… When I take her quiz, depending on the area of my life I’m thinking of, I can get different results.

    Anyway, dealing with family members who are primarily Rebels is exhausting. But her theory gave me some strategies to try and I find if I have the patience to implement them, they do work.

    In short: Give a rebel info but let him make his own decisions/mistakes…the more you push them the more they dig in and do the opposite. I’m guessing the only way a Fitbit would help would be if it was the Rebel’s OWN idea, otherwise they’ll just be annoyed you gave it to them and refuse to wear it.

    If I was this woman and her husband already goes to the gym a couple of times a week, I’d study what gets him there those two times each week and try to facilitate those circumstances. Also he sound kinda depressed, which reminds me what I think motivates my husband to exercise. He KNOWS he always feels so great after a swim (who doesn’t, right?)
    But he once said “If I could just figure out how to bottle that feeling–I’d be a millionarie!” So when he’s sitting around being a couch potato debating with himself out loud whether he feels like going for a swim or not, I say, “Too bad you can’t just bottle it!”

    “You’re right!” he says, “I know it always makes me feel better.”

    But I’m “right” only because I’m repeating his OWN words…my own words (Hey! Get up and take care of yourself! You can’t drop dead, your family needs you!” would only have the opposite effect of “Quit nagging! Don’t tell me what to do!”


    1. Thanks for the share!

      Your husband is lucky he found you and that you have the patience and the knowledge to get him to do things that are good for him. Has he read any of Gretchen Rubin’s books, or Dan Ariely’s?

      I guess if someone could figure out how to best motivate anyone and then bottle it, they would be a billionaire.

      By the way, I’m looking forward to your next post!


      1. Thanks, Jim, for the reminder. I don’t know how you blog so often. I barely slipped a November post in yesterday and might not have without your polite “looking forward” to it 🙂

        Phew. My year of living dangerously : “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it but that it is too low and we reach it.”–Michelangelo

        Ha! Only 1 more to go for December and I can claim I met my big (not big for you, but big for me) goal of 12 and I can call it a very good year 🙂


      2. I love the Michelangelo quote, it reminds me of the Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. Congratulations on staying on target for your blogging goal; I think it’s a matter of quality over quantity (I think quantity is much easier). Your most recent post about the 5 Love Languages is a great example of the quality of your writing and your thoughts. I’m looking forward to your December post!


  3. And , come to think of it, if this woman knows her husband’s LOVE LANGUAGE –she could gift him something exercise related that speaks to it–would probably help her figure out how to motivate him to exercise more often.
    A friend gave me my first sony walkman in 1981 so I could listen to music on my daily runs –I accepted out of politeness tho I didn’t really want it. But then I came to LOVE it. Maybe that would help him
    The 5 Love Languages is an even better framework than the 4 Tendencies to motivate our loved ones, I think. I wonder if Dan would agree? If he ever does a book signing in DC I will go and ask him!
    Thanks for reading.


    1. After reading your 5 Love Languages post, I found it easier to understand than Gretchen Rubin’s 4 Tendencies, and as you note, much easier to apply in terms of gift giving or motivating someone to exercise. I think if Dan read your post, he couldn’t help but agree!


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