Why my physiotherapist should walk the plank!

elbow-plank-with-donkey-kicA year ago this week, I was in a golf buggy accident.  Ironic really as it had nothing to do with golf, I was simply being shown around a tea plantation when the accident occurred, but that’s life I guess.

Could’ve been worse and I’m fine now, more or less, but the main injury was a broken arm and it took almost the full year to heal – something the doctors just love attributing to the fact that I’m getting older, I smoke, or both.   One of the indignities of a broken bone, of course, is that hospitals afterwards feel compelled to send you for physiotherapy.  Yuk!

For someone like me who avoids exercise at all costs (other than regular walks to the smoking area, obviously), physiotherapy is a particular ordeal as you’re not used to stripping off in front of strangers and being bent around into strange positions, so the whole thing becomes something of a nightmare and you end up with the strange feeling that this is designed to do nothing more than subject you to ritual humiliation!  Doesn’t help that sometimes, just like other professionals, physiotherapists seem to speak their own language and assume you know more about exercise than you actually do.  And of course, we go along with it rather than admit we don’t know what they’re talking about for fear of looking stupid.

The exercise depicted in the illustration is apparently called the plank.  It’s an exercise designed to strengthen abdominals, the back and shoulders, and good at helping develop a six-pack apparently (whatever that is!).  I know this not because I’m turning into some kind of fitness fanatic, my mid-life crisis has long since passed, but because when the physio asked me what I thought of the plank, he was somewhat puzzled by my reply when I said I rated it as one of Eric Syke’s finest pieces of work. Embarrassing!

Anyway, like all embarrassing things we want to forget about, we inevitably keep encountering reminders of them over and over again!  Tonight, while looking for an article on something entirely unconnected to exercise, golf-buggies or broken limbs, I came across a new paper by Priebe and Spink that uses the plank in an experiment designed to explore the psychological power of expectations.

In the study, the experimenters took around 70 regular gym-goers and asked them to perform the plank to the point of exhaustion.  After a suitable rest, they then asked them to perform the plank a second time.  Under normal circumstances, individuals perform better on the first attempt and, indeed, in this study the control group averaged a performance drop of around 18% in the time they were able to hold the position.

Here’s the intriguing thing, though… a second experimental group were falsely told that 80% of people in their age group normally hold the position for 20% longer on the second attempt.  The outcome?  Well, the group given false information achieved a 5% increase in the average time they were able to hold the plank position!  So, simply being told that most people do better second time around led them to buck-the-norm and conform to their false expectations.  Mind over matter?  Not really… this is a great example of social norms messaging at work.  Although some of us like to think we are rebels, we aren’t in practice.  We want to be different, but not too different, so we tend to conform to social norms (or what we believe the norms to be, in this case).

Ever stayed in a hotel and seen the little sticker asking us to “help the environment” by only washing towels if absolutely necessary?  Some people go along with that request, most don’t.  I personally go one step further and make sure every towel is washed every day, whether I’ve used it or not, just to annoy the hotel by not helping it reduce its operating costs!  Messages stating how many people have helped the environment by reusing their towels work far better, while messages stating the percentage of people staying at that specific room reusing towels will work best of all.  The power of the social norm at its best.

Where does all this leave us?  Well, if you’re involved in coaching in any type of sport, Priebe and Spink’s work suggests a “little white lie” about average performance levels can go a long way in helping boost individual performance. Similarly, the work on hotel towels suggests that messages crafted around social norms can be very effective in changing behaviour in a social marketing context, whether we want to encourage people to take more exercise, quit smoking or eat their greens.

I’m probably a lost cause on all these healthy counts, alas, and my embarrassment over the Eric Sykes movie simply means I’ve never been back to physiotherapy since!  So, I guess I will just build up my upper arm strength in other ways (probably my lifting the TV remote) and watch the only video on the plank I ever want to see…..

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