Experts are predicting that our children today will be the first generation who will likely have a shorter lifespan than their parents, yet we’re not being incredibly accomplished at changing the patterns of inactivity, obesity, and their related disorders that impact that lifespan. For a long time it’s been commonly thought that the way to get people to make changes is to give them facts that create the fear to force them to change. In physical education, we’ve often employed this notion that a forceful presentation of facts by teachers will instill the motivation needed to cause students to take seriously the importance of exercise in their daily lives and actually make the changes needed to benefit not only their health but their success in school and life. But that strategy hasn’t proven successful in creating youth or adults who are physically active born out by the fact that around 1/3 are obese. So what are we missing?
Alan Deutschman, author of Change or Die, says that the real challenge isn’t change itself but what conventional wisdom believes that change requires – what he calls the Three Fs: Facts, Force, and Fear. In his book he makes this point by citing studies with cardiac patients who were told they had to change or die. Even with this information, after two years, 9 out of 10 patients had not changed. The question was why?
Deutschman notes that when people are pushed, they resist. When facts and fear are used, they may comply in the short-term, but they don’t have a real ownership of the change. He goes on to say that one reason that the fact-force-fear strategy fails is its inattention to emotional intelligence – whether you connect as human beings. That emotional connection is building a feeling of hope for those you are trying to influence. Unless there is an emotional connection, there might be compliance in the short term, but there won’t be change that is lasting.
One of the questions raised with traditional sports-based PE programs is how do you make that emotional connection to evoke change when kids are sedentary and reluctant to move, let alone participate in team sports? These kids do not feel any hope of experiencing success with the skills or enjoying playing. The key is to engage people in a “heart way”, not just a physical or cognitive way. Without intrinsic motivation, people will not persevere.
One strategy that addresses intrinsic motivation and helps to establish personal connections is with the use of Exergaming. Gaming technology, itself, capitalizes on the brain’s chemistry: the games are designed for the player to experience just enough success to maintain hope of more wins. The motivation and reward centers of the brain are active: dopamine is flowing, motivating the player to keep playing, and interferon evokes pleasure. That exercise is needed to play is no problem – there’s emotional safety to fail and start again. When Exergaming is combined with the social connection of playing with friends, it becomes a powerful option for keeping kids engaged in physical activity.
Traditionally, the sports model is a viable and successful philosophy for part of the population, but there are significant numbers for whom it does not resonate. Plus, only 1 in 3 adults receive the recommended amount of physical activity each week, with far fewer of those by participating in team sports. For that reason, if students are going to develop a lifestyle involving fitness, it is important that they experience a variety of ways to be physically active to help find one in which they will engage outside of the school setting. Exergaming can get “PA avoidant” kids moving. Once they experience the satisfying feeling that results from being physically active, they are more likely to try other forms of physical activity as well when the teacher takes advantage of this to build the relationship where learning can take place.
In a recent visit to a middle school, students exhibited incredible motivation during a workout in an Exergaming lab. One of the students (who had behavior issues) shared that this was the best part of his day because it was here that he did well, was respected for his skill, and he didn’t cause any problems for anyone. In this particular case, the emotional connection came from the staff’s willingness to provide another option for him to encounter success. These experiences can be used to help the student by expanding that success to other areas as well.
As educators, it can be challenging to actually get young people invested in a fitness program for their own personal gain and developing sense of efficacy. Sometimes it takes a special “hook” to capture young people’s motivation to be physically active. Exergaming can be that hook. Since exercise creates BDNF for learning and neurotransmitters for improving mood and feelings of well-being, Exergaming can be a valuable tool to just get kids to exercise and thus rewire the brain’s plasticity toward a more positive attitude toward PA.
If you analyze the results of Deutschman’s work, the implication for PE teachers is fairly clear. You can stress fitness, offer a well-rounded program, stress the importance of exercise, but the importance of making emotional connections with the students is an important link to impacting young people’s lives. When you add Exergaming, you enhance that emotional connection.
“A Hope for Change: Alan Deutschman on Change or Die” by Joshua Freedman.