Control: Why We Get Sucked Into Insanity (And Other Intense Workout Programs)

My insanity workout in my recycling bin, waiting for regifting (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)
"Insanity" workout in the recycling bin, waiting for regifting (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Veronica Thomas
CommonHealth intern

It's time to come clean: Like my colleague, Carey, I too am an "Insanity" dropout.

Some people may say we're weak or wimpy or quitters—in fact, many commenters declare just that—but a new study suggests that we fell into a very common marketing trap. We were bored by the same old exercises and hungry for something new—something intense. What we didn't realize was that we might well be looking to intensity as a way to reassert control.

The new study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that when a person's sense of control is jeopardized, they are more likely to buy products that require hard work.

And man, are those workout programs hard. My first time trying Insanity—a high-intensity interval training program—I thought the 9-minute warmup was the actual workout. But Sean T, my glistening TV trainer, encouraged me to dig deeper. While simultaneously cursing his existence, I also managed to convince myself that somewhere deep, deep inside me I did have the strength to finish.

Turns out, my need to complete the workout every day for a month may have been about something more than just a boost to my usual fitness routine. According to the study, I may have been using ski jumps and burpees to regain some sense of control over my life.

From the press release:

“Intuitively, it would seem that feeling a loss of control might cause consumers to seek out a product that does NOT require them to exert very much effort. But we find that consumers actually look to products that require hard work to restore their belief that they can drive their own positive outcomes,” write authors Keisha M. Cutright (Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) and Adriana Samper (Arizona State University).

By looking across five smaller studies, the authors assessed how people's feelings of control over health or fitness influenced their selection of products demanding either high or low effort. Those who felt a low sense of control were likelier to choose tougher programs and mantras. For instance, one study found that basketball players just defeated in a game were more likely to purchase shoes with the tagline, "Work harder, Jump higher."

The study authors conclude that the more someone's sense of control is threatened, the more likely that person is to pick a high-effort, bootcamp-like program. This finding is good news for the often-expensive DVD packs exalted by late-night infomercials. But what does it mean for us suckers who impulsively buy these products, then quit from burnout after a month?

Apparently, that's often when we succumb to more low-effort schemes like diet pills or the "7-minute workout to get in shape super-fast." The researchers found that when progress feels too slow for someone in a low-control situation, they are more likely to be sucked into products with quick-fix promises.

What I can't help but wonder is where moderate exercise programs fit on the spectrum of control. Instead of spending money on extreme, temporary fixes, should we look for more realistic workout routines that can help us maintain control over the long-haul? In my own experience, finding yoga—a workout I can consistently commit to—has balanced my mood and kept my apartment (relatively) free of dusty exercise DVDs.


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