“My dad is overweight, and I can’t get him to work out or eat healthy no matter how hard I try.”
If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it … well, a few times. More than once, is my point. It’s usually someone who trains other people for a living, or is otherwise invested in fitness as a career.
The real question is this, “Why do my powers of persuasion end at the front door of my home? Why do complete strangers seek me out, and hang on everything I say, while the people I care about most couldn’t care less?”
“I get this question from students all the time,” says Kathleen Martin Ginis, PhD, a professor of exercise psychology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “They want to know how to motivate their parents to be active.”
The answer is complicated.
The first and most important thing to know: “Nagging never seems to work,” Martin Ginis says. The result is often “behavioural reactance” – doing the opposite of what you want. “Nobody likes to be controlled, and that’s one way of regaining control from a person who just won’t let it go.”
Here’s how to persuade without nagging.
The first step is the hardest
A few words about what you’re up against:
According to The Psychology of Exercise, a textbook Martin Ginis wrote with two coauthors, about half of adults get little to no exercise. It starts in their mid-20s and stays about the same until the retirement years, when close to 60% of those 65 and older are inactive.
There are also big differences based on education, income and even race. An affluent, well-educated white guy is going to have more peers who’re fit and active than a black or Latino guy who went straight to work after high school. That could give him more motivation.
On the flip side, the blue-collar guy may not have many friends who work out, so within his own circle, not exercising could be perfectly normal.
That’s why your approach requires both finesse and patience. “I think everybody has a ‘hook’, or a reason to be active, but it can take some time to figure out what it is,” Martin Ginis says. “People won’t do something unless they can see the value in it.”
For one guy it might be golf; even with a cart, there’s some walking involved, and he doesn’t want to be the only guy who gets winded walking from the cart path to the green. For another it might be travel, and being able to hike or climb stairs or paddle a kayak.
For someone else the hook might be appearance-related. “Maybe he hates his beer gut,” she says.
Once you find the hook, the next step is to understand why he isn’t already doing something about it. A process that seems simple and straightforward to you may look hopelessly complicated to your dad. No middle-aged man wants to walk into a gym and feel like the only newbie.
Even if he was an athlete or a weight-room monster in his youth, a gym can be a bewildering environment if you haven’t been in one for the past decade or two. The equipment, the exercises and even the clientele will look very different.
To take some of the fear away, Martin Ginis suggests investing your own time in the venture. “Doing it together is often the best type of support,” she says. Take a walk or a bike ride, or take him through a couple of workouts at his local gym.
The second step is no picnic either
You may know, as someone who’s been training hard and consistently, that your dad’s goals won’t be easy to achieve. That’s especially true if he’s looking to lose a lot of weight, or to build a noticeable amount of muscle.
But if you frame it that way, you’re going to lose him long before he gets much benefit. The problem, Martin Ginis says, is that you frame the concept with an emphasis on the “work” part of working out. “It creates images of pain, sweat and heavy breathing,” she says.
Those sensations may give you the feedback you want from your training programme. But it’ll probably do the opposite for someone who didn’t want to work out in the first place.
You need to reframe the idea of a workout so it gives your dad immediate positive reinforcement. A walk outside with someone whose company he enjoys will probably elevate his mood. A light gym workout may give him just enough of a pump to feel better about himself, even if the effect on his gut is negligible.
“It might not fit the Men’s Health idea of ‘working out,’ but it can be a good starting point,” she says. A modest result is still a result and might lead him to pursue something more ambitious on his own.
Conversely, if he refuses to do anything, Martin Ginis suggests an informational approach. Focus on the benefits of exercise without nagging him to get off his butt and do some of it. Small nudges may eventually convince him to try something. And if he tries it, he may like it enough to continue.
Don’t underestimate the old man
Here’s an example.
My own father was both obese and sedentary, and suffered sometimes excruciating back pain. His life seemed so unpleasant that I wanted to be the opposite of him, which helped reinforce my own interest in health and fitness.
But when he got divorced from my mom, he did something I didn’t expect: He started working out. He even paid for my first-ever gym membership, back when I was a recent college grad who could barely afford petrol for my car.
Which means, ironically enough, he helped support my commitment to be nothing like him.
Over the next few years he swam regularly, and even took up racquetball (hey, it was the ’80s). He never looked like a guy who belonged to a health club, much less used it regularly. But working out helped him feel better about himself, and that was enough to keep him going, against all odds.
“I tell my students that exercise has to be the toughest health behaviour to change,” Martin Ginis says. That’s especially true when it’s someone else’s behaviour you’re trying to fix.
You never know what might work for your dad. Just hope it’s not a divorce from your mom.