Public shame: a great way to maintain a habit

I’ve always had trouble keeping up an optimal exercise routine in the winter months, because it’s colder and less pleasant to be outside. Historically, unless I was very disciplined, I have had some bad winters in which I didn’t get much exercise, ate and slept poorly, and gained over five pounds of pure fat.

So I have been very happy that at Carnegie Mellon University, a “fitness challenge” has been in place in the winter since January 2011. The fitness challenge was very helpful last winter in getting me to stay active, and it is being helpful right now as well: I am starting the second of six weeks now:

CMU fitness challenge for winter 2012, week 2

Welcome to the fitness-challenge for 2012 "Strive to Thrive" - you have taken the first step by signing up to make a commitment to yourself and your health by working out 4 times a week for 20 min. The challenge starts Monday Jan 30th. There is a fitness challenge bulletin board in the UC. If your name is not on the board yet please add your name the next time you are in the UC. Once you work out for 20 min please put up your sticker. We are going to have different colored stars and each color of the stars represent a different type of exercise. A RED star is for Group X-ercise class, a SILVER star is for Walking, Jogging, Treadmill, Exercise Bike, Octane, Rower, Elliptical or AMT, a BLUE star is for Swimming or a Water Activity, a GREEN star is for Weightlifting or other Machines and a YELLOW star is for playing a sport. You can get your star stickers @ the UC equipment desk. Everyday you will be receiving an email from our interns from Pitt that will be motivating you to continue your "Strive to Thrive" - have fun, good luck and we'll all be thriving by Spring break! It takes 6 weeks to develop a habit and you have just started yours.

Why it works

Why does the fitness challenge work (for some of us; note how many people signed up and never even put up a single sticker during the first week)?

First, they offered a “free gift” for signing up. Some people get tricked into signing up as a result. Fact is, the free gift is really crappy and I didn’t want it (a hand sanitizer dispenser full of nasty chemicals that I know I don’t need and give me an allergic reaction).

Second, they offer a special awards lunch after the fitness challenge. Judging by how many people show up for this, it’s clearly something people look forward to. For many, it’s a social experience, and we get certificates also. Not such a big deal to me, but when it comes to motivation, every little trick counts. Like, if I’ve only marked three days and only need to do a fourth, I might think, I just need to exercise one more day in order to stay “in the running” for that free lunch and certificate of completion. Silly tricks like this work.

Third, there is the element of public shame. This is the biggest factor for me. Even though I am quite sure nobody I know is scanning the bulletin board every week to see whether I am exercising, it doesn’t matter: I don’t like the idea of seeing empty spaces on the board in my row, or anyone, even random strangers, seeing them. It is not strictly rational, I admit, but the first thing I think, when I’m not all excited on a given day about exercising is, I want my stars to fill up those spaces on the board.


I expect to do whatever it takes to get to attend the awards lunch for the CMU fitness challenge. And it doesn’t take that much. Typically, once I go through the trouble of actually putting on my running shoes or going to the gym locker room, I have no problem putting in an intense half hour workout and getting into it.

I am grateful to Pattye Stragar of CMU and all the interns who got the CMU fitness challenge program started and send us inspiring email reminders every day to keep up interested and motivated.

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