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May 20th , 2018

This week I’ve been working with my students on a project around sports and physical activity. As part of the module we’ve been revisiting systems thinking to help us identify possible design interventions; we’ve had some fascinating discussions around positive and negative feedback loops (talking about things like whether it’s right to harness the power of addiction in this context, for example).

Feedback information is a core component of systems thinking: design interventions round reinforcing feedback loops can have an exponential impact; spotting the negative feedback loops can help us get deeply under the skin of a problem. These loops are all over the place when we’re talking about how to get people to do more exercise and we’ve become quite excited about the possibilities of working with deep motivations and fundamental barriers.

Discussions, mapping and research are all incredibly useful, but it’s hard to work on something as far-reaching as physical activity and health without reflecting on our own attitudes, particularly in this case what our own feedback loops might be.

I went to the gym for the first time in months today. I plan to do it regularly again, but in thinking about how to get back into the habit I’ve been considering how polarised my relationship with exercise has been since as far back as I can remember. I’m either exercising almost every day or not going at all. Most likely, the ideal approach is somewhere in between those two extremes, and before now perhaps I would have sought to find that balance. But thinking about feedback loops has changed my perspective.

It’s clear to me that when I start exercising heavily I get into a reinforcing feedback loop that makes me want to keep doing it. Conversely, a small amount of exercise inevitably dwindles to nothing: if I do too little I start questioning the point and then the downward spiral to inactivity begins.

Perhaps the reality is that the perfect point between addiction to exercise and a complete failure to do anything is such a knife edge that it’s almost impossible to find. Maybe moderation with exercise (as with other things) is just not a realistic goal.

Ultimately I might have to concede that my best option—the most effective place to concetrate my efforts—is in working with the addictive cycle of exercising and trying to maintain it. At least as long as I can, anyway.