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The Pursuit of Health: Motivating Healthy Food Choices and Physical Activity

Date:01 November 2022
PhD candidate Julia Storch
PhD candidate Julia Storch

Everyone desires to be happy. Health – a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being – is a crucial determinant of people’s happiness. This is something Julia Storch, PhD candidate at FEB’s Marketing department, firmly believes. However, she knows that engaging in health-promoting practices and abstaining from health-preventing behaviors can at times be easier said than done. Her mantra is that when we understand why exactly people struggle to lead a healthy lifestyle, we can come up with interventions to help them overcome possible obstacles. That is why Storch dedicated her PhD research to investigating how consumers can be motivated to implement healthy food choices and physical activity into their daily lives. In this blog article, Storch reflects on the research process and discusses her findings.

In her first empirical project, Storch tested if the recall of pride from previous achievements related and unrelated to the health domain could stimulate healthier food choices. “Pride can be a powerful motivational force as people want to feel good about themselves and the things that they do. Also, pride can strengthen people’s sense of self-efficacy – it signals that people already made virtuous choices in the past, thus indirectly providing evidence for their ability to pursue their long-term goals and emboldening them to make long-term goal-oriented choices in the future.” Storch finds that pride is particularly helpful for people who perceive to have little personal control over their body weight and therefore tend to disengage from health behaviors compared with people who perceive their weight as controllable through effort.

Self-efficacy and exercise 

Storch further studied how marketing communication in the market for fitness products affects consumers’ self-efficacy perceptions and their intentions to exercise in her second PhD project. “Companies frequently utilize information to emphasize the effectiveness of their products and services for attaining consumers’ health goals (“no pain, no gain”), but fall short of strengthening consumers’ confidence in their ability to enact the activity simultaneously. I demonstrate the detrimental effects that such “high-effort framings” can have for people’s motivation.”

Storch’s last empirical project was inspired by the global corona virus outbreak. “More people started working out from home with the help of different types of digital aids (workout videos, mobile apps, remote classes via Zoom) and I studied how different online workout formats affect exercisers’ motivation throughout their workouts.” Storch finds that workouts which better convey the feeling of participating in a shared exercise experience with the trainer are more conducive to exerciser’s motivation to persist during the workout.

Expectancy and value

Ultimately, Storch’s research is an exploration of a range of different external (marketing and social environment) and internal (lay beliefs about the malleability of one’s body weight, emotions, goal conflicts) forces that denote barriers or opportunities to the maintenance of healthier diets and engagement in physical activity. “In my dissertation, I draw on Vroom’s expectancy value theory and posit that consumers’ motivation to engage in healthy food choices and physical activity is jointly shaped by expectancy—their expected probability to successfully engage in these behaviors—and value—the situational value assigned to their health goals. The most important finding is that all of these aforementioned factors can differently affect people’s expectancy and value perceptions and thus their motivation to engage in health behaviors.’’

The causes of unhealthy diets and physical inactivity are known to be complex and multifaceted. “Acknowledging this multifaceted nature of the obesity problem, it is evident that no single scientific discipline can claim to offer a silver bullet for curbing the obesity epidemic. Motivating consumers to adopt healthier diets and more active lifestyles will not only require interventions at the consumer-level, but also upstream measures at the policy level. Thus, a systematic program of interventions that create environments in which healthier choices are facilitated and simultaneously increase consumers’ motivation to engage in health behaviors is needed.” Importantly, the findings presented in Storch’ dissertation demonstrate that sometimes even the most well-intended marketing measures and health interventions can backfire. This underscores the necessity of close collaboration between researchers and practitioners as we move forward in our joint pursuit of health, prosperity, and well-being.

Facilitating decision-making & healthier choices

Based on Storch’s research, there are two possible levers through which consumers’ motivation to make healthier choices could be promoted. “First, it is critical to make the engagement in health behaviors as easy as possible. Especially in the supermarket context, nutrition labels and decision aids can be critical because they could directly facilitate the decision-making process at the point of purchase. However, consumers’ self-efficacy could also be promoted through encouraging health messages that may not necessarily influence the actual ease with which healthy choices are made, but people’s perceptions of their ability to make these choices. Second, we need to consider how interventions affect the value attributed to people’s health goals at any given point in time. For example, nutrition labels can facilitate the decision-making process, but could at the same time draw more attention to unhealthy alternatives which might entice them to pursue indulgence rather than health. Here, pride recall could come into play. If we can get people to reflect on the importance of their health goals and how good they felt about themselves based on past choices, they might be more inclined to choose healthier alternatives. For people to be motivated to make healthier choices, they both need to believe that they can successfully engage in health behaviors and prioritize their long-term health goals over other situational goals.”

Across several projects, Storch found that no single “intervention” works for everyone at all times. “For example, the recall of pride related to smart saving decisions lead to healthier snacking choices among people who perceived their weight as fixed, but had the opposite effect on those who perceived their weight as malleable. Similarly, high-effort framing generally undermined self-efficacy perceptions and exercise intentions. Yet, there still remained a small group of exercisers who we found to be highly motivated by high-effort framing.” Therefore, it is important to bear the context in which these interventions are administered in mind. Otherwise, even well-intended interventions can backfire and add to the problem rather than solve it. “This shows that there really is no one-size fits all approach, which adds a lot of complexity – not only for researchers, but also for marketers and policy makers”, Storch concludes.

More information

Julia Storch will defend her PhD thesis on the 7th of November. You can read her dissertation on UG’s website.