Every January, New Year’s resolutions regarding exercise means there’s a surge in intentions be more physically active. Typically, gyms and recreation centres see a boost in membership sales and attendance at the beginning of the year.
However, the restrictions placed in response to COVID-19 have encouraged many to turn to digital alternatives for exercising. One popular avenue for digital fitness is YouTube. Early in the pandemic, YouTube fitness creators saw dramatic increases in their popularity.
It’s clear that these YouTube fitness videos represent an accessible, free and convenient means to engage in pandemic-safe forms of exercise. What’s less clear to researchers is how YouTube fitness videos compare to traditional in-person instruction.
Behaviour change techniques
As physical activity and digital health researchers, my colleagues and I were interested in whether YouTube fitness creators used any behaviour change techniques in their videos to improve exercise practice and adherence. Behaviour change techniques are established strategies that can help to prompt, motivate and/or sustain behaviour changes like exercise. They include things like setting goals, planning for action, repetition and self-monitoring progress.
In a study to be published in Journal of Health Psychology, we looked at the 15 most popular YouTube fitness channels (as of Dec. 31, 2020) and studied the top five most popular videos for each channel to see what kinds of behavioural change techniques they used, if any.
Overall, videos used on average 12.5 behaviour change techniques. The most frequently used ones were demonstration of the behaviour, instruction on how to perform the behaviour and unspecified social support, which includes things like encouraging and motivating words.
How the videos introduced the behaviour change techniques also varied. For example, some creators didn’t talk during their workouts, while others voiced-over their workouts or spoke while working out. One channel, Roberta’s Gym, didn’t even feature a real person exercising, but rather a 3D model of a person performing the exercises.