It is easy for messages to get lost in translation when talking about physical activity. There are several barriers to being heard and understood, and a few opportunities to seize. We have listed four common challenges when communicating about physical activity and below we have listed research-based recommendations.

Challenge 1: The public has a narrow understanding of physical activity as vigorous exercise.

Be explicit that physical activity includes different types of activities at varying levels of intensity, not just cardio workouts, and that it can be a part of people’s daily routines.

Find the original research here

Give examples of daily activities like gardening or taking children to the park as forms of physical activity.

Challenge 2: Members of the public tend to assume that a person’s willpower and inner drive shapes whether they are physically active or not.

Lead with structural factors (e.g. safe parks and access to transport), to encourage people to focus on how environments can promote or inhibit physical activity.

Avoid leading with a discussion of individual responsibility. When we start by meeting people where they are at, we reinforce their default beliefs—in this case, that individuals are solely responsible for their level of physical activity. This, in turn, makes it even harder for the public to see and focus on the role of structural obstacles and the solutions needed to address them.

Explain how systemic factors shape opportunities for physical activity, don’t just assert that they do. This will help counterbalance people’s tendency to focus on individuals only.

Use terms like “options” and “opportunities,” instead of “choices” and “lifestyle.” They are less likely to cue thinking about individual responsibility in the public’s minds.

Challenge 3: Members of the public tend to adopt a “no pain, no gain” perspective on physical activity (i.e. exercise).

Avoid leading with a discussion of the difficulties of exercising and working out. This is likely to reinforce the assumption that the main barriers to physical activity can be overcome by willpower and drive.

Emphasise that physical activity can be pleasant and joyful and give examples of what that might look like. This will help to disrupt people’s association between physical activity and pain and shift their focus away from the role of individual willpower.

Challenge 4: The public thinks that physical activity mostly happens in dedicated workout spaces.

Strike a balance between mentions of fitness spaces and other types of spaces in which physical activity can occur.

Give examples of the types of activities that can happen in non-fitness spaces, like playing in safe playgrounds, cycling on bike paths or “walk and talk” meetings at work.

Published September 2020