Does the 80/20 Rule Apply To Physical Activity Levels?

Posted by IHRSA

The 80/20 rule has become a shorthand way of describing a system where 80% of the output is created by 20% of the inputs/participants. It’s a phenomenon witnessed by economists and social scientists across several sectors of society. In business, for example, 80% of a company’s negative feedback may come from just 20% of its customers; 80% of sales may come from 20% of the sales staff; and on volunteer boards of directors, 80% of the work may come from 20% of the volunteers.

Three recent data points suggest that the 80/20 rule may also apply to the overall physical activity output of Americans.

  1. In May 2013, the CDC announced that only 1 in 5 Americans self-reported enough physical activity to meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
  2. Last month, the 2013 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report announced that health club membership levels in America remained just under 20% for the 3rd year in a row.
  3. And this month, the CDC announced that fewer than 1 in 4 adolescents are meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

One way of looking at these data points is to conclude that 20% of the American population is destined to pursue physically active lives, and the other 80% is destined to long for a comfortable couch – that’s just the way nature intended it. It is a reasonable conclusion given that many people equate exercise with discomfort, and we are generally wired to avoid discomfort. When given the choice between push ups or lounging in front of a flat screen, it’s actually somewhat surprising that that as many as 20% of Americans are likely to choose the push-ups.

But, of course, nobody is actually destined for a life of physical activity or inactivity. Inclined, perhaps. But every one has a choice, and our role as public health advocates is to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

And we must go beyond creating healthy, easy choices. We need to connect on a very personal level with sedentary Americans. We need to understand that motivating millions of sedentary individuals will require millions of different motivations. If it were as easy as simply increasing public awareness of the benefits of exercise, we would have won already. Americans know they should exercise.

So what will it take to move beyond 20%?

I hold fast to the belief that we can one day flip the ratio on its head and reach 80%, but the path to 80% isn’t clear.

What future developments will breakthrough and reach the 80%?

Supportive work environments? Facility-based fitness tracking? Exercise prescriptions? Wearable technology? Walkable communities? Green spaces? Small-group fitness?

What do you think? Can we break the 80/20 rule?