Friday, January 27, 2017

Forming new habits. How long will you wait for results? Part 3.

How long before people abandon their new nutrition plan or exercise habit?

For parts one and two, go here and here.

Research shows that by now most people have given up on their new year exercise plan or nutrition plan. Dry January or Veganuary have quickly turned into beer and a burger for quite a few people.

But why? And why are some people still going and sticking to their plan?

Temporal Discounting.

In behavioural economics and neuroscience there is something called Temporal Discounting. Basically, how long are you willing to wait for a reward. And in general humans (and animals) prefer immediate reward to delayed reward.

For example, its not unusual for people to say after a week of exercise 'I haven't lost any weight yet' or a week of more healthy eating 'I don't feel any different, when will I lose weight?'.

The brain wants immediate results and rewards.

"Large probable, immediate rewards are preferred to smaller, less likely and distant ones." (Gazzaniga et al, 2008:p528)

This could explain two phenomena we all see on a daily basis. One, people weighing themselves after every workout, in the hope there has been an immediate loss of fat or gain in muscle mass. Two, people rewarding themselves with a chai latte and cake after a workout and immediately consuming more calories than they burned off.

Most of the studies focus on monetary rewards in humans (sometimes while they are are in an MRI scanner) or giving juice to monkeys, or sometimes a poor rat with an electrode implanted in the 'reward' centre of the brain.

A common question in these studies is, would you like £10 now or £11 tomorrow,? Most people choose £10 today. But if you say would you like £10 in a year, or £11 in a year + 1 day? It is so far in the future people will choose the £11. (McClure, 2004).

It is not uncommon for lottery winners to be offered a lump sum now, but half the actual amount they won, or the total sum in portions over several years. People opt for the lump sum, even though it is less money.

Exercise and new nutrition habits are by their very nature delayed rewards for people new to it. They are not necessarily exercising because they love it, they are doing it because of a future delayed reward such as fitting into a dress, looking good on the beach. And for many people this reward seems 'distant' and unlikely (due to past failures).

The brains reward system likes immediate rewards. The release of dopamine creates pleasure. It activates neurons in the Nucleus Accumbens/ Ventral Striatum (the 'reward' centre deep in the brain).This dopamine release can be caused by drugs, but also by other things such as a tasty cake. Therefore, your reward system can say 'eat the cake, weightloss is too far away to think about, we need a reward now, we've had a tough day at work.'

Back to rat in the lab, when it has an electrode in its brain that fires off some dopamine reward cells every time it hits a lever, guess what it does? It hits that lever obsessively, in fact ignoring food and water until it collapses from exhaustion because it values the activation of the reward centre in the brain over everything else.

If you keep checking social media every 5 mins, or have ever played a computer game all night, you are basically that rat hitting the lever, looking for a hit of dopamine.

BUT, humans are not rats. We have some (newer from an evolutionary point of view) parts of the brain that deal in self control and planning. The Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC), at the front of your brain.

You can make your brain choose healthy foods.

For example, in one study on dieters (Hare et al, 2009). There were two groups, a group exercising self control, a group not exercising self control.  They rated 50 different foods for taste ( very bad to  very good) and healthiness (unhealthy to very healthy). These foods included 'junk' food like crisps and candy, and healthy foods like fruit and vegetables.

Then while in a MRI scanner they had to reject foods on offer and choose other ones. They had actually not eaten for three hours, and the food they choose they got to eat at the end. The self controllers rejected the unhealthy foods they liked and choose healthy ones they disliked more often. It is not that they didn't find junk food tasty or really likes healthy foods, they just had better self control. In fact, a part of their brain called the dlPFC was more activated in the self controllers. This is the part of the brain that is making more deliberate decisions. This part of the brain was operating far sighted behaviour.

And your brain does this all the time. For example, people book holidays in the future, they save money for pensions and they go to University, when the reward of a degree is years away.

Our brain would like things as soon as possible (Kable and Glimcher, 2010), but it knows that this might involve a delay. For example, you order something on the internet, it wont arrive for 3 or 4 days, but you are prepared to wait. If you went into a shop and they said you had to wait 3 or 4 days before you could buy an item, you would go somewhere else. Your brain understands context.

The reward has to be big enough and important enough. £10 now or £10,000 in a year, err I'll wait a year thanks. The problem is most people aren't thinking about the rewards of exercise and nutrition like this. In their mind the reward isn't big enough to wait.

They are thinking about it much more like a monkey being given juice. A trigger goes off, a few seconds later the monkey is given some juice, there is a dopamine spike in the brain and the reward centre is activated. After a while, there is a dopamine spike when the trigger happens, before the monkey has had the juice. The expectation of reward is triggering a response in the brain. But, if there is a trigger and no reward, eventually the monkey gets wise and realises there will be no reward, the expectation has gone, that 'reward' part of the brain no longer activates.

This is like someone who starts exercising, the anticipation of weight loss and feeling better drives them, but after a while they get no results, they get despondant and give up, the reward system is not firing anymore. A cake will fire it off immediately.

Whereas, the crash diet industry knows how to hit the reward system. Have a novel food you have to eat, restrict calories, lose a lot of weight in a short period of time, weigh yourself five days later and the reward system in the brain goes into overdrive. But the pain is too much, eventualy they give up.

Your emotions are affecting your decisions.

Attractive women, bad decisions and blue oceans.

In one study called Do Pretty Women Inspire Men to Discount the Future ( Wilson and Daly, 2003), the researchers offered men a small monetary reward tomorrow or a larger sum in the future (7 to 236 days). One group were shown pictures of 'hot women' (yes, the researchers actually got the pictures from hot or The men who viewed the hot pictures were more likely to accept the smaller offer tomorrow than a larger amount in the future. They forgot about the future, the planning part of their brain wasn't thinking that far ahead.

Or to put it another way, a young guy is doing some shoulder rehab work and mobility exercises in a gym, an attractive female in yoga pants walks past, next thing you know he is doing max bench press and bicep curls and ignoring his shoulder health.

The researchers found no such effect with women looking at hot men, they were better at keeping a sense of perspective!

Imagine a calming blue ocean...

In another study (Delgado et al 2008), a group of people were asked to visualise a small money monetary reward, $4, or imagine something in nature that is calming and blue, while in an MRI scanner.

The people imagining the calming blue ocean had less activation in the reward centre of the brain and more activation in the control, future planning centre of the brain. They weren't thinking about the money they were going to get.

Now, this doesn't mean emotions are bad. In fact, people who have damage to the emotional parts of the brain make notoriously bad decisions or no decision at all.

The point of this is not that you should avoid hot women or imagine blue calming things, but how even the most basic visualisation and exposure to pictures can affect your brains activation centres and decisions.

What if you actually applied these principles in a much more in depth, sophisticated way?

Where the rubber meets the road.

This is what neuroscientist Sam McClure calls where the rubber meets the road. The practical advice arising from all these studies.

He also points out the hippocampus (where memories are made) is now known to be involved in prospecting about the future.

He recommends:

1) Envisioning future rewards. Make them easy to envision. Envision what the reward will do for your life.

So, really imagine how exercise and nutrition will make you feel and look.

2) Change how you frame things.

Frame rewards in different ways. See the exercise session as a reward in itself. Or in relation to food, demotivate appreciation of unhealthy foods, try seeing cookies like inanimate objects like a rock and think of green tea as a reward or treat.

3) Become more myopic in the way rewards are represented.

Attach more positive emotions to healthy foods. The self controlling dieters knew the junk food was tasty, they were just more focused on their goal and choose a 'less tasty' healthy option. Or even better make it so you see the healthy food as tasty and a rewarding. There are plenty of visualisation techniques to do this. Its just most people don't do them, and have no systematic approach.

And don't forget

'neurons that fire together wire together'

The more you use a pathway in the brain, the more you practice, the stronger the connection gets.

And one last thing, aerobic exercise is shown to activate that deliberate dlPFC part of your brain more. It becomes a self fullfilling prophecy, the more you exercise, the better your brain will get at decision making and planning!

Nuts and bolts are easy.

The fitness and nutrition industries have focused on the nuts and bolts, the programme, the recipe. But this is the easy bit, the nuts and bolts.

The hard part is making people stick with it. The future will be the coach who can change mindset.

Some visualisation techniques have been dismissed in the past as pseudoscience. However, neuroscience is now showing us how important envisioning and mindset are in framing your goals, seeing where you want to be and succeeding.

Lastly, associating the process itself as the reward. Taking pleasure in the exercise, looking forward to cooking that healthy meal. The people who stick with exercise are the ones who look forward to going to the gym or for a run. It becomes their passion, their reward.

Or as Adrienne of Yoga with Adriene said this week:

"The journey is the reward, the process is the candy."

Or for another excellent article I read this week about focusing on the process and forgetting goals by James Clear please click here 

In part 4 we will cover memory.


Gazziniga et al (2008) Cognitive Neuroscience

McClure et al (2004) Separte Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards.

Hare et al (2009) Self control in dieters study.

Wilson and Daly (2003) Hot women cause men to discount the future study.

Kable and Glimcher (2010) We want things 'as soon as possible'

Interview with Sam McClure, Introduction to Neuroeconomics MOOC.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Forming new habits. Why is it so hard to give things up? Part 2.

Why losing things is twice as painful as gaining things.

In this series I am going to cover some of the behavioural science and neuroscience of forming habits, giving up bad habits, goals and rewards. I am going to come at it from a different tack possibly to the usual writings on fitness and nutrition, and at points I am going to extrapolate, stretch the science if you will, or apply some principles to exercise and diet that you may not have seen framed in this way before.

Human decisions are complex, the brain is complex(go figure), so there will be some simplification as necessary.

Over the next few posts I will cover the parts of the brain that deal with addiction and reward, loss and memory, making comparisons, motivation and decision making.

But lets break it down.

First up

Prospect Theory.

I've covered forming new habits before, see here for part one.

Essentially, I don't think the process of forming the new habit is hard. What is hard is the things you have to give up for the new habit to work.

It might be time you have to give up to go to the gym, this could be time when you normally watch TV or cruise the internet.

It could be some foods you have to reduce or give up and then replace with better alternatives. Despite what you may have read, you can't just eat what you want and lose weight, you may have to actually modify what you eat.

I am an example myself. Yes, I add in healthy foods, vegetables, green tea and all that but I still eat way too much cheese. Yes, there may be some addiction here (which I will cover in future posts) but basically I don't want to give it up.

If humans were following purely rational utility, then we would not eat the donut if there was an option of an apple as well. But as we all know, this is not always the case.

Most of these traditional theories of economics and utility ignore emotions but obviously your emotions have a profound impact on what you choose.

Human beings are risk averse and loss averse.

In some classic studies by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, they showed people when given a choice generally accept the less risky option. Even if they could possibly win more money, people generally go with the sure thing.

Two of their classic problems:
Which do you choose:
Get $900 for sure OR 90% chance to get $1000?

Which do you choose?
Lose $900 for sure OR 90% chance to lose $1000

Most people choose option 1 in the first problem and option 2 in the second problem, essentially for the same reason. People don't like losing things, they like the sure thing, but will take a risk if the sure thing could involve a loss.

In fact, most people find losing something twice as 'painful' as gaining something.

See the graph below.

Prospect Theory graph: Note how losing something causes twice as much psychological pain, as the joy of gaining something.

(The caveat being if you trade on the stock market and take class A drugs there is a chance you are not risk averse and are prepared to lose big time).

These studies are normally done in purely economic terms, you could win money, but what if we applied these ideas to fitness and nutrition?

If you are trying to develop a new lifestyle there is uncertainty and this cause emotional arousal.

Yes, logically you know eating healthier and  exercising is good for you But these are things that are going to happen in the 'future'. All the time you brain is making a cost benefit analysis.

To frame prospect theory in fitness and nutrition terms, as some people see it:

Which do you choose:
Give up an extra hour in bed, eating crisps and chocolate, sitting on the sofa when you get home OR the chance you may lose weight, feel better and possibly prevent a future disease.

Or when taking out a gym membership think of it this way:

Lose £40 a month for sure (gym membership fees) and you may get fitter and lose weight and prevent disease


Keep £40 a month for sure (don't join a gym) and you might get fitter a lose weight by going for a walk everyday or may not develop those diseases anyway by doing nothing.

Some speculation on my part...

There is the potential loss of your old self or things you enjoy. This can fire off a part of the brain called the Insular Cortex. This part of the brain is also monitoring body states such as disgust, if you are eating something you find horrible then could this part of the brain fire. If you find exercise painful and not enjoyable then this part of the brain could again be active. Meanwhile the part of the brain that responds to reward and potential gains (the fabled dopamine response) could not be so active.

Going into a gym, getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new are all 'risky' things. And to begin with you may not perceive them as pleasurable, in fact they may be decidedly uncomfortable to begin with.

Where you Insular is, in case you were wondering.

Then we have the amygdala, the so called fight or flight part of the brain. But, it is a bit more complicated than this. The amygdala is also working out cost benefit (should I do this new thing, what is the cost, what is the benefit), fear conditioning and more.

Of course, if you start to really enjoy exercising, or enjoy the health new foods, and enjoy the feeling of being healthier and maybe carrying a little less fat, then the potential gain has outweighed the potential loss of Dominos pizza and 10 hours on the internet. But, the gain would have to be perceived as twice as much as the loss.

This also relates to what Kahneman calls system 1 and 2 of thinking.

In general system 1 is quick, emotional, intuitive and can actually make better decisions than your logical mind when there are a lot of factors to consider.

System 2 is slow and rational.

When you eat that donut, you are probably already licking your lips before system 2 has had a rational chance to start working.

People are not risky in all aspects of their life, for example, people can make sound financial decisions, wear a seat belt while driving and still smoke.

People normally view monetary risk in terms of the status quo, you don't want to lose what you've already got.

In terms of health and well being you have to re-frame it in your mind. Make the potential gains and benefits overwhelming.

So to re-frame one of the statements above:

Invest £50 a month in your health, add a new enjoyable activity into your life for 4 hours a week, try some new nutritious food and it is a sure thing your health and fitness will improve and you will probably live longer and have less chance of developing certain diseases (and look better naked!).

People make subjective probability choices rather than objective ones. For example, If people were being objective they would never buy a lottery ticket, and they would realize that something like a terrorist attack in the western world has a very low probability (which they will tend to overreact to, thanks media) whereas heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes have a large probability and people tend to under react to them.

Except, if they get a health scare, then some people modify behaviour but some people don't.

One thing Prospect Theory cannot contend with is regret and disappointment. The choice you should have made, that could have been an easy financial win but you were greedy. OR in terms of health, the small lifestyle changes you could have made that would have had a profound impact on your well being but you chose the status quo instead.

Why is that? Why would your brain let you continue on a path of behaviour that may result in its early demise?

Find out in part 3.

Kahneman D (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Introduction to Neuroeconomics, How the Brain Makes Decisions, MOOC, Higher School of Economics(Moscow).

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

January ain't what it used to be.

Why the January gym rush wont happen this year.

There was a time in the fitness industry when everyone waited for January.

Sales targets were cranked up and everyone braced themselves. Most of the years finances were dependent on the first 2 months of the year.

People keep asking me if it is busy yet, are all the new people taking over all the equipment. The answer as always at the start of January is no.

The first 2 weeks of January in my experience are never that busy anyway. People stay away because they think it will be busy or they are still at home finishing off the last of the Baileys and Stilton before they can start their exercise plan.

The people you see in the gyms in January are normally returning members, people upping their number of visits, not substantially new people. Most of the people you seen in the gym in January are the people you saw all year round, they are just visiting more.

Everyone is posting up memes on social media of the January gym rush. Everyone expects it to happen, but it hasn't really happened like that in a few years. Everyone hypes it up, and this may put people off coming because they think it's going to be crowded.

This probably wont happen. Source: every fitness person on the internet

I don't think the rush is going to happen. The last couple of years I've noticed the rush in January isn't as big, and there is a much more even pattern of people joining throughout the year.

The busiest I've seen the gym I work in is actually in August, with all the students returning and working out.

I was training in a budget gym this morning, which has over 4000 members, it was quieter than normal. The same gym in December on a Wednesday afternoon, you couldn't move in the weights area for bro's.

Possibly, the public have got wise. The industry is now relatively old. Twenty years ago, no joining fees and joining a gym were a novelty. Now, the discounts are old hat, and most of the public are not so wedded to the idea of joining a gym in January. They have either 1) already joined one and stayed 2) Or have joined and dropped out so many time they realize this is not going to work for them.

I could be overestimating the mood of the general populous. As I would have thought everyone would have got wise to Boxing Day, Black Friday, January sales but they patently have not.

The market is also increasingly fragmented, 15 years ago, you either joined one of the big health club chains (Esporta, LA Fitness, Canons, Holmes Place - remember them?) or your local leisure centre or sat at home with your Davina workout DVD.

Now you can join a budget gym, sign up to 30 days of yoga for free on youtube, join a crossfit gym, go to a yoga studio, do clubbercise in your local hall, join a local micro gym, go to a PT studio, find a local PT online (with a professional looking website), buy a programme online, do a bootcamp in the park, have a gym in your garage, download an app, go for a run, buy a bicycle and joining a club or go for a walk.

A personal trainer friend of mine recently said January is good for gyms but not so good for PTs, people join gyms thinking they can do it themselves, realize they can't and then find a PT in March. He could be right.

I think January may not be so good for gyms anymore.

This is a good thing, as an industry and model we have matured, we have a more even stream of income throughout the year. We are not cashing in so much on broken dreams and promises.

I've noticed more and more gyms, local and multi site now offering 3 day and 5 day passes to entice people in, it seems to have overtaken the no joining fee sale. Probably because no joining fee is now available all year round, and no one sees it as a special offer anymore.

But the people who use your free pass in January are essentially the same people who use it the rest of the year (unless you are in a large town with a large turn over of population and a transient workforce).

In most gyms now, the cardio equipment is hardly ever all in use. The weights areas are full. You don't see anyone putting their towel on the screen to cover up the time, next to the sticker that says 20 mins only on a treadmill. The queue is for the power rack now*

This implies to me that most gym users are 'experienced' in some fashion, most newbies steer clear of freeweights areas and stick to cardio.

The people who go to the gym, go more and get more value for money, and the people who don't go, don't go at all.

The exception to this may be the budget gyms, that rely on 5,000 people not all turning up at the same time.

Something is shifting, the paradigm is changing, and something is going to happen but I'm not sure what yet.

Fitness companies and trade magazines will naturally remain buoyant in their appraisal of January and February and the market penetration and number of people joining. But that doesn't help move things on.

I hope when sales targets are missed and income levels drop, companies don't try and do more of the same, make more calls, give out more free passes. The game has changed. The strategy needs to change too.

Of course, I could be wrong. You could go to the gym next week and it is full of newbies and all the equipment is in use. In which case, welcome them, we were all beginners once.

*Freeweight areas are much busier and cardio areas much quieter in gyms: I've noticed this in the gym I work at, a local independent gym but more importantly at a large budget gym I go to. This budget gym has a whole floor of cardio equipment, 20 plus treadmills etc, and it is hardly ever more than half full, and mostly empty. Whereas, the floor with all the resistance machines and freeweights can be very busy and full. Walking in this gym, it is like going back 20 years, the cardio area is mainly women and older people, the weights area is 99% young guys with the occasional women venturing in; hats off to them for not being intimidated by the bro 'love in' and skinny jogging bottoms. I'm pleased to say where I work the freeweights area has just as many women in it and sometimes more women than men, all credit to the coaching team for achieving this. It's easy to forget that some parts of the industry haven't moved on and certain things are still not the norm.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Shadow of the Future*

Near Year. Always new beginnings.

Everyday a new beginning.

You will start something with good intentions, and give up and fail. It doesn't matter. Begin again.

You will write down goals that you will miss. Begin again.

You will start something and succeed.

You will achieve something.

Lose weight, get fit, enter a 5k, 10k, 50k, climb a mountain, read a book, learn an instrument, start a course, learn to cook. You can choose to start whatever you want to. You can begin something new now.

The edited highlights of someone elses life on social media will make you feel like you are missing out. You are not.

The perfect filtered picture on instagram will make you feel that you are not good enough. You are good enough.

You will promise yourself you will eat healthier and exercise. You will fall off the wagon. Begin again.

You will be scared and anxious and wonder if the rain will ever stop. But you will get up and begin another day.

Other people will be scared and anxious and frightened. They will not tell you this.

There will be lost loves and lost opportunities.

There are other opportunities. Do not squander them.

You will lose someone you love. There will be someone who loves you.

You will try your best. But at times it will seem half arsed. It doesn't matter. Begin again.

You will have an argument with someone you care about.

You will say something stupid and dumb. You wont know why.  Don't worry, this is not who you are. You will try and be better and more understanding. Be better. Begin again.

You will be misunderstood and you will misunderstand other people.

You will cut someone up in traffic. You will be cut up in traffic. There will be cancelled trains, and delayed planes and crowded stations. They are only moments. They will pass. You will begin again.

You will do a good job. You will do a bad job. No matter, either way begin again.

These moments will not define your life.

Someone will make you laugh out loud. You may cry.

You will forget something important. You will remember a pointless fact about a TV show or song.

A celebrity will die. A celebrity you've never heard of will get married or divorced.

There will be a war in a place you've never heard of, and people will die.

And millions of people will be kind and generous. And it wont be reported.

Someone will sit on their ass and not do a damn thing. This does not affect you.

Your goals are your own. Do not do them for other people.

Your failures are you are your own. Do not blame others.

You will make mistakes. Accept, apologise if necessary. Begin again.

Governments will change and fall and you will get up and go for a run as usual, roll out your mat or lift that weight.

There will be someone you will never speak to or see again.

You will meet new people. They will meet you. You can't trust your internal voice and they can't trust theirs either.

Someone will say something that pisses you off, or will be a dumbass. It doesn't mean that is who they are. Let them begin again.

Give people the benefit of the doubt. But don't accept dogmatism and hatred.

Choose weightlifting, or running, or yoga, or powerlifting, or walking, or cycling. You can choose your path. It is okay to change your path.

Don't hate yourself because you ate a dessert or missed a training session or got drunk.

You are not a bad person because you ate a chocolate bar.

Be kind to yourself and begin again.

Everything you will ever know or experience will be from a first person perspective.

You can let the past cast a shadow or you can let it go.

The shadow of the future has no shape yet.

You don't have to be the same person you were yesterday. You can wake up  and start again. Brand new.

You will forget all this in the heat of the moment.

All you can do is try your best.

Only one outcome is certain.

Every moment, every breath is an opportunity to begin again.

Start now.

Get some perspective.

*The shadow of the future is a term from Game Theory. In Game Theory you generally have the chance to co-operate with an opponent or be selfish and make a pre-emptive strike, but they could also do the same. However, if you are likely to meet the person in the future it is always best to co-operate. In general a strategy of 1)Be nice 2)Reciprocate 3) Don't be envious 4) Don't be too clever, always outperforms all other strategies in Game Theory. Life lesson - always start by being nice to people, and co-operate where possible. Plus 'The shadow of the future' is a cool title.