The Psychology of Cheerleaders

Got the health-and-fitness blahs? Try a little more rah-rah.

When I was in school, cheerleaders never failed to whip me into a frenzy. Even though I didn’t play football or basketball and rarely attended games, just the sight of one on campus quickened my pulse and boosted my spirits.

And they still have that effect on me today.

So what if we brought the concept of cheerleading, with all its you-can-do-it sis-boom-bah, to the field of health and wellness? What if instead of routing for touchdowns, cheerleaders were on the sidelines as we fought to lose weight, beat disease, and get back in shape?

Felecia D. Sheffield, Ph.D., a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader who is now a clinical psychologist in South Florida, thinks it makes perfect sense. “A cheerleader’s job is to provide encouragement, motivation and support,” she explains, “and those things are beneficial on and off the field.” In fact, humans are psychologically wired to respond to a cheering section. Consider, for example, a baby learning to walk. His parents encourage his every progression toward that goal, from crawling to pulling himself up to taking his first wobbly step. Such reinforcement is a form of cheerleading, Sheffield says; it’s how we learn and make strides throughout life.

Unfortunately, as we age our personal cheering section shrinks until we’re left facing opponents alone. (This is especially true for men.) Research shows this can be detrimental to physical and mental health; the lack of a social support network can dampen mood, depress immunity, and even shorten life. Conversely, supportive friends and family – cheerleaders, in effect – can do the opposite.

So the next time you set a health- or fitness-related goal, whether it’s stubbing out cigarettes, running a 10K, rehabilitating from injury or beating a diagnosis of disease, make sure part of your game plan involves a cheering section. It could prove to be the difference between victory and defeat. Let’s go to the chalkboard and sketch out the strategy:

Set a specific goal:

“Before bringing anyone else into the picture, know what you want to accomplish,” says Sheffield, “and make it specific. So instead of saying ‘I want to lose weight,’ say ‘I want to drop 25 pounds in the next 6 months.’”

Break it down:

Next, take that long-term goal and reduce it to “short-term, attainable steps,” she explains. So that 25-pound target becomes 4 pounds per month or 1 per week. That makes it more doable.

Fight back the fear:

The reason most people don’t recruit more cheerleaders is because they fear failure, embarrassment and ridicule, notes Sheffield. So swallow your pride and admit you could use help. People will respect your effort.

Pick your team:

The people you live with are key because of their proximity. After that come relatives, friends and co-workers. Throw a wide net, utilizing social media. If it’s a personal goal, use Facebook, Twitter or a free app called LifeKraze, which builds online communities that reward leading an “active, healthy and fulfilling life.” If you’re organizing a cheering section for someone who’s hospitalized, check out CarePages.com and CaringBridge.com. These sites help families and friends stay connected during a health crisis and offer virtual support to the person in need.

Tell them how to cheer:

“If your cheering section doesn’t know what you expect from them, you’ll be discouraged when you don’t get it,” says Sheffield. “So tell them.” It could be simple compliments, periodic pep talks or, if you’re trying to lose weight, not bringing home your weakness (pepperoni pizza).

Celebrate your victories (however small):

No one has to do any back flips, but it’s important to reward yourself for reaching each short-term goal. So indulge yourself with a pedicure, a massage, or some other guilty pleasure because you earned it. Plus, it’ll reinforce the behavior psychologically, says Sheffield, and make it more likely it’ll continue.