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Five Things Marathon Allure Can Teach Us About Improving Everyday Health

Runners pass the 25-mile mark of the 2014 Boston marathon. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Runners pass the 25-mile mark of the 2014 Boston marathon. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

By Bradley Stulberg
Guest contributor

Health behavior change is hard; if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. But running a marathon is also hard, and lately it seems that just about everyone is doing it. The health care industry could learn a lot from the increasing popularity of the marathon about how to design programs that help people make positive health behavior changes.

At its core, running 26.2 miles has much in common with the process of health behavior change. Both are physically and psychologically challenging, require a lot of will and at least a basic level of skill, and can be quite uncomfortable. But the two diverge when it comes to the experience of running a marathon, which is filled with allure. Ask yourself: Would so many people be eagerly volunteering (and paying!) to run marathons if the vast majority of preparation was completed in isolation and if the race occurred on a self-measured back road with at most a few family members watching? Highly doubtful. Yet this is often what people are asked to do when making health behavior changes, and then we wonder why so few succeed.

The good news is that by evaluating the total marathon experience, we can identify key components that make running an entirely unnatural distance so appealing, and consider how we might apply them to health behavior change. Remember, very few people are drawn to running 26.2 miles, but hundreds of thousands become absorbed with and triumph in the experience of a marathon. Perhaps it is time to start designing health behavior change solutions in the same vein.

So here are five things health care can learn from the marathon experience to promote behavior change:

1. Coaching

Nearly all successful marathoners follow detailed training plans that are rooted in evidence. Since it is not pragmatic for most athletes to pursue in-person coaching, many (including professional runners) use programs founded on Web-based communication with varying degrees of telephonic interaction. This technology enables consistent contact in a highly accessible manner, allowing the athlete to easily incorporate being coached into the rest of her day, and the coach to have a broader, more scalable reach of his services. Digital coaching platforms are highly evolved; nearly all are user-friendly, facilitate data sharing, storage, and tracking, and are often available on demand via computer and smartphone. Continue reading