Category Archives: sport

Doctor Who and the Aerobics

TIMEA female friend recently asked me if I thought she looked fit.  For a male, that is a nightmare question because it is open to so many different interpretations!  Pausing a moment, I decided to play it safe and replied “Sure, have you been working out?”  Good call!  That was exactly what she meant and, given our age difference, it led to a longer conversation about ageing, exercise and health.

The psychology of ageing is interesting, of course, because its relationship to longevity and health depends very much on what you mean by “age”.   The common measure of this is our functional age, quite literally meaning the number of days (or hours or years or whatever) since we were born.  So far, so good…  Well my functional age is ##   (nope, not telling you!).  Then there is my subjective age, which is very mood and situation dependent.  Got flu this week, so feel ten years older at least.  Then again, listening to the radio in the car today, the ABBA track “Does your mother know” brought back memories of bad pub singing by me and a girl called Dawn in 1987 and I suddenly felt much younger (well, for three minutes or so!).  But what of the relationship with exercise, health and longevity?

Well, I don’t have a TARDIS, so travelling through time isn’t an option and I smoke too, so guess I need to look elsewhere for advice.  Ok, what about the idea of biological age?  Now that’s a very tricky concept!  Up to the age of about 30, so-called “aerobic power” will do for most psychology experiments.  Over-simplifying things, this is the index derived from treadmill exercises that get our heart and lungs up to maximum capacity and we see how sustainable that is.  Problem here is that beyond the age of 30, we typically decline in aerobic power at a rate of about 1% per year in the average person and other physiological factors combine to make this a less useful measure.  So, what can we do instead?

Recent work undertaken in Norway, involving almost 40k people, has sort of cracked the code.  This is based on the idea of fitness age.  Specifically, it’s a measure based on BMI (body-mass index), age, resting heart rate, etc., plus answers to questions indexing three variables; how often we exercise, how long for, and how hard we push ourselves.  If you are interested in determining your own fitness age, there’s a nice online test you can try and it’s now stimulating interesting research into the psychology of ageing and exercise.

So, what do we know so far?  Well, we are all generally healthier if we stop thinking about ways of extending the number of years we will live after birth, which is of course impossible, and instead thinking about pushing back the number of years we have left until we die.  That simple reorientation in thinking alone helps more than we might expect!  In terms of exercise, we can achieve a “younger” fitness age if we get the frequency, duration and level right relative to our chronological age, BMI, etc.  And by definition, a younger fitness age means our death has been delayed…

Alas, it is not quite that simple.  There are many benefits of exercise at my age (which I am still not telling you!).  Managed correctly, it can reduce my chances of a heart attack, delay dementia and improve my sexual health.  Even then, though, exercise means I am at greater risk of joint problems, it may make me more prone to obsessive compulsive problems, and it will also accelerate tooth decay!

So, where does all this leave us?  Not sure…but to go back to the opening question from my friend and flipping it, at least I can offer my own definition of what a “fit” man over 30 is.  Following the Norwegian logic, the man who has lost his own teeth, is limping, can’t remember his address and who keeps washing is hands just could be the fittest guy of all!  Oh, and his sexual health is probably ok too…

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…..

Why do little things feel heavier?

Weight_Lifting_Hamster One of the most interesting and persistent illusions in psychology is the so-called “size-weight illusion”, first described by Augustin Charpentier way back in the late nineteenth century. We’ve probably all experienced this at one time or another…

If we have two objects that way exactly the same, but are different physical sizes, the object that is smaller always feels heavier than the larger one even though it’s not. Psychologists have been trying to explain the illusion for years, without complete success.

One popular explanation if that we expect the larger object to be heavier, so we use more strength when picking it up and it therefore seems lighter than the smaller object simply because we are trying harder.  I’ve never quite bought that explanation… Seems to me it only holds true once.  If we’ve already picked up both objects and figured out they are the same weight, we shouldn’t be caught out the second time we pick them up – but we are, the smaller one still feels heavier.

New research by Gavin Buckingham in Experimental Brain Research takes us at least a step closer to understanding what might be going on here,  It seems the expected weight differences might be a result of learned expectations about weight encoded within the brain.  In an innovative series of experiments, Buckingham found it was possible to completely reverse the SWI effect by having participants repeatedly lift supposedly identical weights that had been rigged such that the larger object really was lighter.  After a period of time living in this back-to-front world, the participants began to always experience smaller objects as being lighter than larger ones, even though they were the same weight.

What’s going on here?  Well, I think Buckingham’s work supports the “effort put in” explanation.  After repeatedly experiencing the smaller objects as being heavier, the brain has learned this general rule and applying it; in other words, it has come to expect smaller things to be heavier, so extra effort is put in to lifting them and, as a result, they begin to feel lighter.

Ah, the World Cup again – shall I opt out this time?

worldcupThe World Cup is fast approaching and for those of us less-than-enthusiastic about the “beautiful game”, but who will doubtless get drawn in, I find myself beginning to look for more interesting aspects of the event than just 22 men kicking a ball around.  Marketing, of course, is pivotal to everything and there will  almost certainly be some fascinating elements of the World Cup to keep us consumer psychologists amused for a while.

This week, one piece on the World Cup caught my attention in Marketing Week, which reports on the launch of what will be the most expensive marketing and media campaign Adidas has ever undertaken.  This is the latest shot in the Adidas-Nike war, of course, and their battle to become the sportswear company most closely associated with major sporting events.  It’s got off to an impressive start for Adidas, with a truly star-studded commercial premiering on television during the climax of the European Championships, but it’s the social media dimension that is perhaps more interesting this time and I sense that, rather as happened during the Olympic Games, this will be the most online World Cup to date.

The cornerstone of this online element is the above YouTube distribution of the commercial, which ends with an opportunity to “opt in” or “opt out” in terms of access to Adidas-sponsored World Cup content.  This very much attunes to the overall campaign theme of “all in or nothing”.  I’ll be watching this with great interest, not least because I am currently researching the “opt in/out” decision in an m-commerce with colleagues.  If our work with smartphone users is anything to go by, the quality of the information those who opt in gain access to will be crucial.  It’s the perceived value to the consumer that is absolutely crucial here, so it will be the old adage “content is king” that ultimately determines the campaign’s success or failure for Adidas.  I’m tempted to opt in myself to see what’s on offer…. well, almost!