Thursday, 16 July 2015

Who needs nudging, shoving, and shaming? Individuals or government?

Guest post by Victoria McGowan, Post-Doctoral Research Associate at Teesside Uni, Alcohol & Public Health Research Team

I recently attended International Society for Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity (ISBNPA) conference in Edinburgh (see #ISBNPA2015 on twitter). The conference was a great event and I’m very grateful to Teesside University for supporting my attendance.

Conferences have a tendency to be sedentary affairs and can often have limited opportunities for physical activity or even just standing during sessions. However, I was delighted to see that the conference organisers had marked out significant space for standing during sessions. Not only that, but there was the opportunity for yoga and health walks early every morning as well as lessons in ceilidh dancing at lunch time and a walk to Arthur’s Seat as part of the social programme. It was quite a physically active, physical activity conference.

Lunch time ceilidh dancing
However, there were some interesting discussions about whether us delegates were being socially shamed or nudged into partaking in physical activity during the conference. The conference opened with Professor Nanette Mutrie describing how she’d spotted one of her own researchers using the escalator as opposed to the stairs and encouraged delegates to give standing ovations to all speakers in an attempt to get us on our feet more. Although I found the level of physical activity on offer a refreshing change from being largely sedentary, I was slightly unnerved about the underlying social shaming.

I’m a strong advocate for informed choice, I love posters on stairs telling me how many calories I’ll burn by walking up them but I also love having the option of taking the escalator. There were stories of academics taking photos of people using the escalator to shame them for not using the stairs. It was interesting to watch the Mexican wave of delegates standing to applaud, a few individuals would stand and then row after row behind them followed suit… until it came to me and I would sit in defiance. Why did I stay seated? Because I have a choice and honestly, I don’t like being socially shamed into doing something. Yes, I agree obesity, nutrition, and physical activity researchers should not be hypocritical and practice what they preach. However, we also need to be mindful that we’re working with people who are more concerned about paying their rent, whether their children need new school shoes, zero hours contracts, whether they can get an appointment with their GP, the list goes on. Yes, taking the stairs may improve our health if we use them regularly but we have to understand that some individuals choose the unhealthier option due to a whole host of external pressures. Lecturing these individuals about taking the stairs may fall on deaf ears or, as in my case, may lead to defiance. I used the escalator on occasion because it was quicker for me to walk up/down the escalator to dash between sessions and avoid the crammed stairs.

There are other reasons why individuals choose the less healthy option and we need to understand these external pressures rather than shaming people into taking the stairs. As Professor Alan Batterham rightly pointed out in his debate with Professor Stuart Biddle we’re evolutionary predisposed to conserve energy whenever possible so sometimes we may choose the escalator. However, we may choose the stairs if we’re provided with information on why it’s good for our health, or if we alter the environment to make healthy choices easier. But please don’t shame us into choosing one option or the other as this could lead to unintentional detrimental consequences of purposeful rebellion. Yes, I’m aware of the obesity ‘epidemic’, but I’m also aware this is caused by factors which are outside of individual control. Professors Ted Schrecker and Clare Bambra’s book How Politics Makes Us Sick shows how the rise in neoliberal policies in the UK and US are associated with rises in obesity and health inequalities.

Inequalities are having the greatest impact on health
Kylie Ball highlighted this point at the end of her keynote speech, yes we need to help improve nutrition and physical activity BUT we also need to help reduce inequalities in nutrition and physical activity. Inequalities are having the greatest impact on the nation’s health, not occasionally taking the escalator.

It’s time to nudge, shove, and shame our government, not individuals, into reducing health inequalities and improving overall public health.

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