Challenges and ironies of health messaging

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a nifty quick “bike benefit calculator” on their website. It’s intended to promote cycling as a transportation choice for commuting to work. It’s basic and delivers a simple message: cycling instead of driving can save you money.

I have to say I’m left scratching my head a bit about how they chose to communicate the “health benefits” derived from cycling to work instead of driving.

At right is what the calculator shows me when I plug in my 10 km one-way commute to work (I often ride to work, or I did until this happened last week). Don’t get me wrong: I love a double double and a doughnut as much as anybody. But measuring health benefits in terms of the tonnage of doughnuts and extra-sweet coffees I can consume to put my caloric balance right back where it would be if I were driving my car seems… to miss the point somehow. Think of what fitness gains I could realize if I didn’t nullify my expenditure of nearly 150,000 calories per year riding to and from work by replacing those calories with junk food?

While I find myself chuckling at the irony of the cycling-for-Timmies metric, it does raise a serious question: how to sell the benefits of behaviour change to an audience that might not be already physically active? Perhaps the CBC used the coffee-and-doughnut metric because they had a sense that people might be concerned about trying to maintain their weight, and that the concept of junk food “treat” rewards would be appealing? A more direct method—caloric equivalent of a pound of fat, say—might have similar (but admittedly less Canadian) appeal, but taken too simplistically and literally, it can generate unrealistic values. For my 10 km commute for example, if I didn’t eat more than I would if I drove my car, using CBC’s caloric estimate I’d have burned the equivalent of about 41 pounds of fat. That’s an unlikely real world scenario for a multitude of reasons. For starters, I eat a bit more when I exercise regularly, so my weight loss wouldn’t be nearly so significant.

For people who aren’t already physically active, providing a compelling reward metric can be difficult for social marketers who work to promote less-polluting, less-congesting, and healthier transportation choices. This year, after a several months of regular bicycle commuting, I shed 14 pounds, but my biggest pay-off was a significant increase in cycling speed and power—a benefit that has had direct positive impact on my cyclocross racing performance this season, and which is far more compelling for me than a wheelbarrow full of doughnuts. And this is the challenge for social marketers, urban planners, and health promotion advocates: different people respond to different incentives.

So, join me in relishing the irony of the Timmies health benefit metric, but also reflect on how this illustrates a fundamental challenge in promoting the benefits of behaviour change to a diverse population.

And yes, I’ll admit it: bicycle commuting has allowed me to treat myself to a doughnut or two from time to time as well.