Confessions in the Gym — or, How to Use Peer Pressure for Your Benefit

The oth­er day I’m bound­ing in to the gym where I work out and I see Steve – the head train­er.

How ya doing, Doc?’ he says.

I’m doing fine. But I haven’t been get­ting to the gym that reg­u­lar­ly,’ I respond, feel­ing slight­ly guilt-rid­den to con­fess my sloth­ful­ness.

Don’t tell me about it — do it for your­self, man, not for me,’ he answers.

Is he right?  Is the best moti­va­tion­al plan to ‘do it for your­self’?

I begin to think about how absurd my atti­tude is. Why do I adopt an almost apolo­getic tone with Steve? Shouldn’t I be exer­cis­ing for myself? For my own health? Rather than to impress a train­er with my dili­gence?

It’s not that Steve doesn’t care about me – I’m sure he gets a kick of sat­is­fac­tion when he sees “his mem­bers” build­ing fit­ness safe­ly and effec­tive­ly.

But he’s not exact­ly keep­ing tabs on my com­ings and goings. He cer­tain­ly under­stands that peo­ple have busy lives with com­pet­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties. What’s more, I bet his exer­cise habits aren’t so per­fect either.

Soon I’ve con­vinced myself that my reac­tion is irre­deemably imma­ture. I vow to raise my game: define my own goals and work con­sis­tent­ly to achieve them, dri­ven by inter­nal moti­va­tion.

But then I had a further revelation

I’m sure I’m not unique – Steve must hear a lot of gym mem­bers respond the way that I did. Many peo­ple act as if they “owe it” to their train­er to keep a firm exer­cise com­mit­ment.

And not only at the gym — the world is full of folks who express guilt to their yoga teacher when they haven’t been get­ting to class reg­u­lar­ly. And peo­ple who are embar­rassed when they see their den­tist in the super­mar­ket because they haven’t been floss­ing twice a day.

And peo­ple who scram­ble to orga­nize their finan­cial records so they won’t be ashamed when they meet with their accoun­tant.

And so on and so forth.

The fact is most peo­ple aren’t moti­vat­ed to do good things for them­selves based sole­ly on inter­nal­ized goals.

Most peo­ple try to please oth­er peo­ple, at least to some degree.

Most peo­ple try to look good in the eyes of their peers and want approval from “experts.”

Most peo­ple try to live up to an exter­nal stan­dard that they imag­ine oth­ers aspire to live up to.

Seems imma­ture on first glance. But here’s my fur­ther rev­e­la­tion: Maybe that isn’t such a ter­ri­ble thing.

If a behav­ioral pat­tern is so preva­lent, maybe, instead of dis­miss­ing it as a use­less ves­tige from mid­dle school, it pays to con­sid­er that it may have a benign pur­pose.

Make your doctor happy

Here’s anoth­er exam­ple:

We don’t entire­ly under­stand how it works, but the “place­bo” effect is one of the most pow­er­ful heal­ing process­es known to sci­ence.

One thing we do know is that some doc­tors are bet­ter at elic­it­ing a strong place­bo reac­tion than oth­ers. Why?

One the­o­ry says sim­ply that patients engage their inter­nal heal­ing pow­ers – their place­bo response — more strong­ly if they like their doc­tor. They want to make their doc­tor hap­py. This desire uncon­scious­ly dri­ves their inter­nal health behav­ior to help them rebound from ill­ness and heal from injury more quick­ly.

Rather than shun the “place­bo effect” as being some­how unsci­en­tif­ic, a ratio­nal approach to health­care should try to enhance it as much as pos­si­ble. After all, it leads to pos­i­tive results.

Go ahead – like your doc­tor. Try to make him (or her) hap­py. Get bet­ter faster.

Choose your peers wisely – you’ll react to their pressure whether you want to or not

The same prin­ci­ple can be used to pur­sue any health goal.

Want to lose weight? Find a per­son (or group) who will be impressed with you if you shed ten pounds. Then try to make that per­son hap­py.

Need to quit smok­ing? Don’t do it for your­self. Do it to prove some­thing to anoth­er per­son.

The key is to choose your peers wise­ly. Here are three prin­ci­ples to guide you:

  • Don’t pick peo­ple who are too judg­men­tal. It won’t work. In fact, research shows that it’s hard­er to lose weight if you work with a doc­tor who you think is judg­men­tal.
  • It’s also impor­tant to pick peers who you respect; peo­ple whose pos­i­tive regard means some­thing to you.
  • Also pick peers with whom you have an uncom­pli­cat­ed emo­tion­al rela­tion­ship (prob­a­bly not your spouse). That way the emo­tion­al cal­cu­lus is straight­for­ward. You won’t act out irre­spon­si­bly to indi­rect­ly “send a mes­sage” to this per­son.

Fol­low­ing these tips will help you achieve the results you want in health and in life.


Deepen Your Body of Knowledge

Exer­cise may be con­ta­gious

Humans strive for social sta­tus. Why?


About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty five years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods. His website,, provides more information about his approach. Please contact him at or at 212-400-9663.
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One Response to Confessions in the Gym — or, How to Use Peer Pressure for Your Benefit

  1. George Blomme says:

    Very good, very use­ful arti­cle Ron.

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