By James Fell, Special to Tribune Newspapers
9:01 PM EDT, June 20, 2012
If you've seen Kim Kardashian, you know why she's famous. One hint: It's not for her knowledge of pharmacology. This is why I was surprised to see her on "20/20" talking about QuickTrim diet pills, which she endorses. "We helped formulate this," she said.
Really? And that's a selling point?
When the goal is getting in shape, there are smart ways to invest your money that will garner you a positive result. But before we talk about that, let's pick apart the fraudulent side of the weight-loss industry.
Americans spend more than $40 billion annually on weight-loss products and services, and, according to the Federal Trade Commission, much of this stuff is bogus. A 2007 FTC survey of consumer fraud found Americans were more likely to be taken in by weight-loss scams than by any other type of fraud, and that 4.8 million people were victims that year.
Why are we so gullible? I spoke with Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society and author of "Why People Believe Weird Things" to find out.
"Weight loss is so susceptible for fraud because (it is) so hard to do and the signs of progress so slow," Shermer said. "The reward is not enough for most people. Anything that appeals to shortening the process is going to sell."
Shermer, who has been a competitive cyclist for 30 years, admits that he's struggled himself. "The cost in difficulty for weight loss is very high, and for the average person it seems impossible." And so people spend money on weight loss "miracles" that any rational-seeming person would scoff at.
"It's called the optimism bias," Shermer said. "There are just enough success stories — either real or imagined — that people believe they will be the one who is successful." And they buy again and again because they have a poor memory for failure. What's more, Shermer asserts, dialing that 1-800 number, credit card in hand, to buy the latest machine, pill or powder elicits a dopamine surge that reinforces the behavior.
That being written, I'm a big fan of throwing money at fitness, but it must be done wisely to garner a positive return. So let's do a business analysis of how to tackle the issue of being in poor shape. You need to analyze not just what your goals are and how to best achieve them, but factor in issues such as time management and efficient budgeting.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is the love factor.
This column is not about how a flat belly may attract amorous attention, but investing your funds wisely in a sustainable fitness enterprise by focusing on activities that are enjoyable rather than simply effective. This is where two theories of behavior change — self-efficacy and operant conditioning — intertwine.
Motivation is the key ingredient to sustaining an exercise regimen long term, and sound investing increases positive reinforcement: a feel-good sensation that conditions you keep repeating a behavior.
I mentioned self-efficacy theory, which is all about creating situation-specific self-confidence to succeed at a new behavior. Let's use an analogy about joining a weight-lifting gym to explain how this works.
Say you walk past a gym and see a Nike sign proclaiming, "Just do it!" So you walk in, succumb to the high-pressure sales pitch and buy a membership, attempt a workout using your Magnum P.I. shorts from high school and a ratty T-shirt used for painting with no clue as to what you're doing or how to use the equipment. Perhaps you hurt yourself. Also, you find the place is full of arrogant muscle heads with snake and skull tattoos running from knuckles to neck. You hate it and never go back.
That was a bad investment. Self-efficacy theory recommends instead that you learn, plan, prepare, then just do it. Developed by Albert Bandura in 1977 and published in Psychological Review, self-efficacy isn't as catchy as Nike's slogan, but it's lauded as the premier theoretical model for sustainable behavior change.
Self-efficacy dictates you find a gym you like that is convenient and has a crowd and staff you mesh with. You buy some decent gym clothes you feel good in and hire a qualified trainer to show you the ropes. You feel more confident as you learn and progress at the skill of lifting heavy things and putting them back down. This provides a sense of accomplishment — the feel-good sensation I mentioned earlier. This "positive reinforcement" is operant conditioning in action. Developed by B.F. Skinner in 1953, this fundamental concept of how rewards reinforce behavior is what prompts you to become a regular gym rat.
Or not. Perhaps you hate gyms. Perhaps that money would be better spent on swimming lessons, dance class, marathon training or — ahem — a really expensive bicycle.
Which bike prompts you to ride it more, the $250 clunker from the hardware store or the $2,500 model from a high-end bike shop? I know the answer, and it's why my bank account took a hit this month. The shop was called Speed Theory and the bike an Argon 18 Krypton. This more expensive machine practically begs to be ridden. Quickly.
But is the additional expense worth it? There are the intangible benefits, of course; spending money on an enjoyable activity and feeling good by having improved energy, health and physical attractiveness. There are also more concrete examples of gaining a financial advantage by spending money on getting fit.
In an earlier column I wrote about using vanity as a fitness motivator I showed that employers pay a "beauty premium" of approximately 16 percent to people who are attractive vs. those deemed unattractive. What's more, a study by Vasilios Kosteas, an associate professor of economics at Cleveland State University was published this month in the Journal of Labor Research where he found that "engaging in regular exercise yields a 6 to 10 percent wage increase." It's surmised that this is because exercise boosts energy, lowers stress and increases mental capabilities, all of which can contribute to earning a higher paycheck, but there is an additional explanation for which we must return to self-efficacy theory.
Getting in shape is what Bandura calls a "performance accomplishment," in which "one finds through experience that even the most difficult obstacles can be mastered by sustained effort." If you master your fitness — an exceptional challenge — you can master your career. I'll attest that getting in shape was the impetus for my getting an MBA and having a successful career afterward.
I haven't even addressed the potential savings from lower life, disability and health insurance costs by being more physically fit. It all adds up to time and money wisely invested in fitness that pays you back big-time.
Oh, and that expensive bicycle I invested in? After the inaugural ride, I realized that — judging by how much my face hurts from all the smiling — money can buy happiness.
Fell is certified strength and conditioning specialist.
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