Nudgespotting: Getting Active in D.C.


Almost everyone appreciates the benefits of exercise, especially when it's time to make New Year’s resolutions. But incorporating exercise into your busy schedule isn’t always as easy as it looks on the Lulu Lemon commercials. In fact, in 2015 only 20.9% of adults over 18 met the federal physical activity guidelines. Even when we do intend to exercise, we often find ourselves feeling like it’s not worth the trouble or being tempted into a happy hour instead.

The good news is behavioral science can help. Here are some Washington, D.C. behavioral science insights in action that have helped others -- and myself -- get active.


I’m often craving a post-work social release. I’m not talking about a meetup to analyze poetry or solve the problem of overpopulation. I mean the guilty pleasure socializing where I’m able to uncork all of the mundane thoughts bottled up in my head. For many of us, the go-to fix for this is hitting up happy hour. But this doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, what if you used your desire to socialize as an incentive to do an activity that takes a lot of hard work, sweat, and maybe even some pain -- like exercising?

Picture 1. Local sports leagues bundle the immediate pleasure of socializing with the long-term benefits of exercise (image source:

Pairing an immediately enjoyable activity, like chatting with friends, with a task that is beneficial in the long-term, like exercise, is called temptation bundling. And it’s been shown to be effective at getting people to exercise more. When people decided to only read guilty pleasure novels while they were at the gym, they went to the gym more often. So how can you use guilty pleasure socializing to get the same effect? In D.C., it's easy. There are almost an infinite number of organized sports leagues, ranging from soccer to kickball to ultimate Frisbee, that you can sign up for with friends. As an bonus, making a commitment with others makes you more likely to keep it -- it’s a win-win!


According to the psychological principle of social norms, we’re more likely to do something if we think everyone else is doing it. In the world of fitness, this means that the more physically-active people you see, the more likely you are to get active yourself. Fortunately, in D.C., you don’t need to go all the way to a gym or a yoga studio to be surrounded by fitness buffs. You just need to be outside.

Picture 2. People doing yoga in the park gives D.C. an active-city personality, and might make newcomers (or even more tenured locals) more liking to grab a mat themselves.

Picture 2. People doing yoga in the park gives D.C. an active-city personality, and might make newcomers (or even more tenured locals) more liking to grab a mat themselves.

Walking back to my apartment with Chipotle in arm, I spotted a group of individuals doing yoga in the park (picture 2). A few blocks later, I had to dodge Cross-Fitters running circuits on the sidewalk as part of their session at their nearby gym. Being surrounded by other individuals working out inspired me to pull out my yoga mat that evening. When I see my fellow Washingtonians exercising, it sends a message that perhaps I should be exercising, to.


Picture 3. Climbs these six stairs and you've burned...1 calorie?

Picture 3. Climbs these six stairs and you've burned...1 calorie?

Have you ever chosen the elevator over the stairs while wearing exercise clothes? Given your outfit, it seems like a safe bet that you’re trying to burn some calories. So why are you shying away from the opportunity to take the stairs? Unlike treadmills, most stairs don’t keep you updated on how your progress is adding to your workout. This leaves a lot of room for you to assume that fitness gains of taking the stairs is negligible, or at least not worth the pain of hiking up them when you’re already winded from your workout. In this sports club, the stairs solve this problem by marking the calories you burn with each step. This clear display of feedback makes it harder to avoid the opportunity to make the most of your workout.

However, as warned before in previous posts, there’s a potential downside to this strategy. If people expected to burn more than 0.17 calories per step, they may decide the stairs aren’t worth it after all and opt for the elevator instead. In other words, the effectiveness of this attempted nudge may depend on whether people are pleasantly surprised or disappointed with the amount of calories they can burn by shunning the elevator for extra steps on the stairs.


While the barriers to exercise are seemingly endless, there’s surely more tricks to getting active. Readers, what’s been nudging you to exercise?