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Engaging the Body Yields Behavioral Benefits

A new study finds that using motor skills while being asked to change behavior makes it more likely you'll follow the advice.
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Persuading someone to act differently usually involves appealing to the mind and heart. But fascinating new research suggests it's useful to also get the body involved in the discussion.

A study just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology provides evidence supporting the concept of embodied cognition, the notion that we think not just with our brains, but also with our bodies. A group of researchers led by psychologist David Sherman of the University of California, Santa Barbara, compared methods of convincing people to engage in specific health-promoting behaviors.

In one experiment, 61 undergraduates watched a short video of a person demonstrating exercises. All were instructed to imagine themselves doing those same exercises while they watched the instructional video, but half were also told to walk in place while doing so.

One week later, they turned in their exercise logs. Those who had walked in place during the video exercised for an average of 75.7 minutes per day, while those who had merely imagined themselves doing the activity exercised for 59.7 minutes a day. That's a startling difference of 16 minutes.

In a similar experiment, 65 undergraduates watched a short video on flossing. All were instructed to imagine themselves flossing their teeth while they watched the demonstration, but half did so while touching a piece of dental floss provided them in a small packet.

Here, the results differed by gender: Women, but not men, who touched the floss during the demonstration flossed more during the following week. Females, the researchers found, "were more open to changing their flossing behavior and hence more receptive to the motor manipulation."

The researchers (including co-authors Cynthia Gangi and Marina White) conclude that these studies "demonstrate that minimal, health-relevant motor manipulations can facilitate health behavior change and greater intention-behavior consistency." They speculate that engaging multiple systems — sensory, motor and cognitive — may result in "more developed mental imagery," which makes it "harder to forget the invocations to exercise."

So, dental hygienists, try putting a piece of floss in your patient's hand before admonishing them to take better care of their teeth. And health educators, get those obese teens out of their chairs for your presentation. If you want people to change the way they treat their bodies, it's a bright idea to get the body involved from the beginning.

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