Need Fitness Motivation? There’s an Avatar for That

According to findings published in the Journal of Marketing Research, people tend to have a “now or whenever” mentality when it comes to results. We’d like our rewards now, thank you—but if we have to wait, it doesn’t matter so much when they arrive.

It’s why we’re willing to pay considerably more to have something shipped tomorrow, but not much more to have it shipped in seven days rather than 10. It’s probably also why, if we can’t have rock-hard abs tomorrow, it seems like it doesn’t matter whether we start that aerial yoga class today or next week. Or whenever.

Behavioral economists say we’re even more likely to discount future rewards if we can choose a more immediate alternative. No wonder skipping a workout to dine with friends always seems like a good idea.

Logically, we know that the sooner we start improving our diet and exercise habits, the better. But how can we get as excited about the health benefits we’ll enjoy in 10 years as we get about overnight shipping? Researchers have found one way to bypass our tendency to prefer pleasure in the present: show us pictures of ourselves.

Hey, That’s Me—But Fitter

In five studies, scientists at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab set out to test whether virtual doppelgangers would influence their owners’ real-life health and fitness behavior. As it turned out, they did.

The researchers created personalized avatars using participants’ photographs. In one study, people who watched their avatars running on a treadmill were more likely to exercise following the study than those who watched their avatars lounging. Watching avatars of strangers exercising didn’t have the same motivating effect.

In another study, people who watched their avatar’s figure get slimmer during a workout—or conversely, gain weight in connection with inactivity—were even more likely to get moving afterward. Similar experiments in which avatars ate healthy or unhealthy food, and waistlines narrowed or expanded accordingly, also spurred healthier behavior.

We feel compelled to imitate what we see, the study authors said, especially when the outcomes of the actions become more tangible.

Seeing aged avatars can also help us overcome the tendency to short-change our future selves. Studies measuring financial behavior have shown that when someone views an older doppelganger, they become more future-oriented with regard to retirement savings. The same aging models could be applied to long-term health goals, researchers in Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab said.

Our Imagination Works, Too

If you don’t have access to a personalized avatar, visualization might be the next best thing. “Visualization is an easy way to see ourselves practicing a certain behavior,” says Jeff Brown, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a Boston Marathon psychologist. Brown says Boston marathoners use visualization to boost motivation and performance: “They dedicate time to seeing themselves run well and run strongly,” he says.

Ample research has demonstrated that being able to see oneself from a bird’s eye view can alter self-perception and subsequent behavior. In a 2007 study, psychologists at The Ohio State University found that when people pictured themselves engaging in a potential future action (in this case, it was voting) from a third-person perspective, as opposed to first-person, they were more likely to view that action favorably and to actually do it.

Not only are we likely to identify with the exerciser in our mind’s eye, but visualization has additional rewards. According to Brown, it can help with skill-building and exercise anxieties. If you’re scared to hazard your first few kettlebell swings in front of an audience, you might spend 15 minutes mentally working through your strength training routine before you go to the gym. “It’s perfectly fine to visualize yourself messing up and correcting it,” Brown says. “You visualize yourself being resilient.”

Brown, who coauthored The Winner’s Brain, adds that once you’ve done a few trial runs in your head, you’ll be less susceptible to in-the-moment temptations. And don’t forget to visualize the rewards to come.

Realistic Imagery is Important

It seems the advice “fake it ’til you make it” might actually have some basis in psychological science. The trick to bringing your healthier simulations to life? Make them compelling.

For a computer simulation to be effective, it should look enough like you to trigger self-identification, the researchers at Stanford noted. For visualizations, Brown suggests incorporating as many senses as you can, as well as conjuring them in real-time: “Spend however long it will take you to actually do it—because you’re ultimately teaching your brain to do it,” he says.

Brown also recommends using visuals during the day, which creates a stronger imprint on your mind than when you’re relaxed at bedtime.

A cautionary note: Keep in mind that you aren’t burning any calories from watching your doppelganger work out—some people have a tendency, as observed by Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, to calorie-compensate for the exerciser onscreen.

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