I work out in the gym a fair amount, and I have noticed that the regulars divide themselves into two camps. There are those who want a lot of structure and coaching. They sign up for spinning and Pilates classes and dutifully show up every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 p.m.; more and more are even hiring personal trainers to keep them on track. The exercise freelancers, by contrast, prefer to grunt and sweat on their own. You've seen them off in the corner with the free weights. They don't even like talking to other people all that much.
I put myself in the second camp, though I have wondered sometimes if I am losing out on health benefits by being so fiercely independent. I know I dog it at times, and like a lot of Americans could probably use an occasional nudge to work harder and longer. This is not a luxury issue having to do with expensive clubs. Our country is in the midst of a public-health crisis, with escalating rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and more. And regular exercise, while not a cure-all, can remedy many of these health problems. Yet it's proven maddeningly difficult to get slugabeds to adopt an exercise regimen and stick to it. Is structure the answer? Or is there a downside to the trend toward formal classes and instruction and personal coaching?
Psychological research has a few things to say about this important health question. Consider a body of work known as "self-efficacy theory." I'll spare you the jargon, but basically what this theory holds is that we are powerful agents in our own lives, that we can take stock of where we are in life and change if we choose to, by setting goals and making plans and acting on those plans. This may sound obvious, but as they say, the devil is in the details. How do we make lasting changes, especially big changes, like going from being a couch potato to a gym rat?
The keys are mastery and self-regulation. We learn new things vicariously, by simply looking around and taking notice of what works and modeling it. In that sense, just showing up at the gym is probably a good start, and organized classes offer good models of basic skills like a proper sit-up. But there is a potential pitfall for would-be exercisers when they cede independence to an instructor or (especially) a personal trainer. Psychologists call these "proxy agents," and the risk is that we actually can become too dependent on these people. If that happens, we end up learning technical skills but actually diminish the mental and emotional skills—delayed gratification, discipline—needed for long-term commitment to health.
Health psychologists are just beginning to explore the practical applications of these ideas, but at least one small study lends support. In that study, the psychologists compared the two camps of exercisers: the freelancers versus those who gravitate toward instructors and coaching. When the researchers in effect deprived them of any sort of formal workout structure, they found that indeed the freelancers were much more confident in their ability to manage their exercise programs on their own—setting realistic goals, exercising safely and so forth. The "joiners" had become overly reliant on the very coaches who were supposed to help them change.
These findings may not be all that surprising, but what's interesting is that the exercisers were self-selecting in a way that's not particularly adaptive. That is, the ones who desire a lot of help and support are the very ones who can be hurt by it. This is not just about ab crunches at the club. More and more people are hiring personal coaches to help them manage all aspects of their lives, and personal trainers are playing an increasingly important role in health-care settings—in cardiac rehabilitation and in nursing homes, for example. If it's hard for us to stick to a long-term health-promotion regimen, just imagine how hard it must be when you have an excuse, like discomfort or disability.
The vast majority of the decisions we make every day are completely automatic, with no conscious deliberation. When I go to the gym every morning, I see exactly the same people there. I can guarantee you that they are not waking up and weighing the pros and cons of exercising that day. They are brushing their teeth and heading to the gym. But making exercise the default position takes months and months of doing it, until it requires no internal debate. Both individual exercisers and trainers need to be mindful that the best kind of coaching pumps up self-reliance and discipline as well as pectorals and lats.