Dr. Michelle Segar on the Science of Getting Motivated to Exercise (and Why It’s So Hard)

“Well, of course you hate to exercise. You’ve been taught to hate it.”

Michelle Segar calls herself “the opposite of an athlete,” but she has already begun to change the ways we talk about exercise. As director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan and chair of the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan’s Communications Committee, she has pioneered approaches to sustainable behavior change based on her research. In her book, No Sweat! How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, Segar argues that focusing on abstract, long-term, and medical benefits doesn’t work for most people. Instead, fitness advocates should rebrand exercise as a source of immediate gratification and a pathway to daily joy. Heleo writer Abe Loomis spoke with her recently about self-care, motivation, and finding the “right why’s” for moving our bodies.

Abe Loomis: Let’s say on January 1, I make a resolution: “I’m going to join the gym and I’m going to lose 15 pounds.” Why wouldn’t that work?

Michelle Segar: The first question I would have is, have you made that same declaration and not achieved it in the past? Most people would answer yes. And the reason why it hasn’t worked is that we’ve been taught to approach losing weight in a very narrow way, one that can actually undermine people’s sticking with it.

We get very focused on the scale and external feedback. It’s not feedback that comes from inside of our bodies, it comes from a scale. And while it’s a very logical goal, it’s for the future. You have these choices in the now based on what you hope to achieve in the future. There’s a thirty-year body of research showing that what people intend to do doesn’t actually translate into long-term behavior change. Science shows that humans are more motivated by immediate rewards and benefits than they are by future goals that they’re aiming to achieve.

Abe: So how would I get immediate gratification out of, for instance, running on a treadmill for 45 minutes?

Michelle: You’ve got to understand what’s going to drive the goal. People have been taught that to lose weight they need to change how they eat and they need to move more, with more intense exercise. Those are two very challenging behaviors to change at the same time.

“But when it comes to making change, smaller is smarter.”

It’s very important for people to think about focusing on one behavior change at a time. Research shows that we have limited cognitive capacity. We have limited self-control, and every time we have to make decisions and choices, it actually depletes our self-control muscle. We have grandiose goals—bigger is better in our culture. But when it comes to making change, smaller is smarter.

Abe: What if my goal were more general: just to exercise more, or to be more healthy. How would someone maintain the motivation for that?

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Michelle: When people say they want to “be more healthy,” that’s a red flag for me. I used to think that exercising for health was a fantastic motivator because we should deeply care about our health, right? And most people really do want to be healthy. But it gets back to the future, abstract reason for behavior change. When we were looking at reasons for things, we actually saw that exercising for health or future health was associated with motivational profiles that were basically as poor as the motivational profiles of weight loss, and had the same lower levels of physical activity.

I was shocked by this finding. I thought, “How could this be? What is a better motivator than health?” I dove into the science, which suggests that getting some kind of immediate, positive benefit from our choices is actually much more motivating than some future goal. Immediate rewards could be higher energy or a better mood. Research also shows that physical activity helps control depression and anxiety. Once people learn the association between physical activity and how their body and mind feel, that winds up being among the most potent motivators for physical activity.

We’ve been educated in our culture to think of physical activity as a way to be healthy, for disease prevention—to avoid cancer and diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And even though those are great reasons to exercise, for most people they tend to be too distant from our choice to exercise to actually motivate the decision day in and day out.

Abe: Essentially, you’re saying that people need to substitute one reason—a reason that actually works—for one that doesn’t.

Michelle: Yes. It’s among the most important tasks. I call it transforming. We want to transform the wrong “why’s” into the right “why’s.” When we do that, we quite easily convert exercise from a chore into a gift.

Abe: It’s almost like running a little internal advertising campaign saying, “Okay, we’re going to rebrand this. Rather than saying, “It’s to be healthy,” or, “It’s to lose weight,” we need to start saying, “It’s so that I can feel good today,” or, “It’s so I can be more effective at work.”

Michelle: That’s exactly right. And once we start to notice that, then the return on that investment of time becomes very concrete, and we can say, “Wait a sec, I’m really down. I’m not enjoying work, or I’m snapping all the time at everyone I come in contact with. I need to give back to myself right now so I have more fuel for the other things.” It’s really an amazing shift.

Abe: It sounds like an important part of this is about building one’s awareness of what’s happening internally.

“Well, of course you hate to exercise. You’ve been taught to hate it. Think about how people would feel if they were told how to have sex.”

Michelle: Absolutely. Society has evolved to promote things like exercise out of a medical paradigm focusing on better health and weight loss. But it’s time to acknowledge that what motivates people is different than the predictors of health. We have the decision-making literature. Frankly, we can just look to excellent marketing. What gets people to buy things again and again are things that make them feel good and help them fulfill their cherished roles and responsibilities everyday.

You see people going, “I hate to exercise.” Well, of course you hate to exercise. You’ve been taught to hate it. Think about how people would feel if they were told how to have sex. Most people wouldn’t enjoy it because they’d be doing it not the way they actually wanted, but in the way they thought they should. I think the same thing is true with physical activity as it is with sex. We’ve been told how to move our bodies, and we’re moving them in ways that actually feel bad to us, or we’re forcing ourselves to do things that we don’t want to do. It makes our bodies not enjoy it, and our body kind of tells us, “No, I don’t want to do this.”

Abe: So is part of the work to find the right activity? Do you need to try swimming, and jogging, and racquetball, and soccer? How is this put this into practice?

Michelle: Think of it as being in physical activity kindergarten. What do we do in kindergarten? We play and we learn how to learn. In the same way, you have to figure out how to sustain a pleasurable, joyful, physically active life. You want to try activities, and I encourage people not to aim for the higher intensity activities because they think they “should” do them. In kindergarten, we start small and slow: “Gosh, you know, I have never really liked running, so let me try walking around the block and see how I feel when I give myself permission to be active.”

Abe: Walking around the block—so not only exercising in a way that feels good, but in a way that is already familiar and readily available.

Michelle: Starting convenient and familiar is a great way to go, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try something else if it sounds good. I want them to—here’s the word again, awareness—become aware. We really do have to take a step back and think about what kind of experiences we like.

Abe: You’ve talked about changing the frame, choosing things that are actually going to give you an immediate boost, and starting small. It strikes me that these principles and this research could have far broader applications.

Michelle: Oh, absolutely. The principles came out of research not just about fitness. They’re about decision making and learning theory and organization theory.

The approach that I talk about in No Sweat helps people understand the core concepts that they want to be thinking about when they’re starting any new behavior change.

“You cannot change behavior without understanding how we’ve been taught to think about that behavior and what we believe about that behavior…”

Abe: Is this something that started with a personal connection for you? Are you an athlete yourself?

Michelle: Most people assume I’m an athlete, but I’m actually the opposite of an athlete. I walk primarily for my physical movement because that feeds me very much. I did have a couple of things happen that drew me to this field. The first thing was that when I was about 12, I remember feeling down and out one day and I just put on a Walkman—back in those days our first portable music was a Walkman—and I put on either Michael Jackson or Prince, and I jogged around my neighborhood. It uplifted me so much. That was my own personal entry into movement as a lifestyle.

Professionally, what really got me into this field was when I was getting my first master’s degree in kinesiology. We were doing a trial with cancer survivors, people who had been treated and were living normal lives pretty much, about five years after treatment. We were among the first group to look at the physiological benefits of exercise and see if exercise could reduce depression and anxiety symptoms among cancer survivors. We found that it did. Part of our study was to call the participants back 10 to 12 weeks later to give them the questionnaires again and talk about their experiences with physical activity. What I was shocked to discover was almost everyone, despite talking about the benefits of exercise, had stopped exercising.

I asked the various focus group participants, “Why did you stop exercising? I heard you talk about how great it was for your health?” They said, “Oh my gosh, I have so much to do every day. I’ve got to work. I have kids to take care of. I have errands to run.” What became clear to me was that these people stopped exercising because they were simply busy adults living their lives. The thought that cancer survivors, people who had faced this life-threatening illness, did not feel comfortable prioritizing their own self care showed me that we had a tremendously huge problem in society, and that was really when I said, “This is my problem and I’m going to solve it.”

That was 22 years ago. After getting my master’s in kinesiology, I went on to get a master’s in health education and public health so I could learn how to design and evaluate interventions or programs. Then after delivering my program in the community for a few years, I went back to get my PhD in psychology so I could study motivation.

Abe: In your book you mention that your thinking has been influenced by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. I was curious about that connection.

Michelle: That’s something that always surprises people, but his work has been among the most influential out of everything I’ve learned, because ultimately his approach is about how people have been socialized.

What he did with his work was help impoverished people to understand how they’ve been socialized and how other people in power were then taking advantage of them — but in a way that lets people discover it on their own. That is how I have always approached thinking about why it is that people don’t stick with the healthcare behavior like physical activity or getting enough sleep or changing their dietary habits, and how we can help them make changes in ways that they can sustain. You cannot change behavior without understanding how we’ve been taught to think about that behavior and what we believe about that behavior, as well as what we’ve been taught to prioritize in our daily lives.

Abe: It sounds like that speaks to identity—both as individuals and within a matrix of community or family.

Michelle: When I’m treating a behavior like physical activity—it could be sleep, or dietary change, or medication, or something else—I focus on self care, the sustainability of self care behavior through creating systems. We cannot sustain a behavior unless we learn how to integrate it into our families, into our work, and into our communities.

We know what’s been going on for the last 30 years: The approaches with the wrong “why’s” do not hook people. They get people to start and stop, to stay in the vicious cycle of failure. They don’t get people to sustain. People are too busy and exhausted to sustain behaviors when they’re juggling a ton of other things. We have to make the behaviors truly relevant and compelling to them. Part of how we do that is by helping them understand not only that they’re going to feel better when they do it, but that when they feel better, they’re more enthusiastic about everything else in their lives.

“It’s very short-sighted for society and employers to think that work, work, work is actually going to get the highest quality and best outcomes—including innovation and productivity.”

Abe: So an investment in themselves means benefits for everyone.

Michelle: We’ve been taught that our own sense of well being should be at the bottom because it’s not important, but in fact, our sense of well being is the energy, it’s our energy source. We’re all energy-centered.

It’s very short-sighted for society and employers to think that work, work, work is actually going to get the highest quality and best outcomes—including innovation and productivity. Arianna Huffington [founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post] is actually paying her employees to sleep more because she knows the science.

Abe: Do you think that research will change how businesses operate?

Michelle: I think more and more data will pour in from organizations that are promoting the right why’s, and getting higher engagement levels, and the results are going to be better performance at work and decreased health costs.

Abe: It seems like it also might change how doctors talk to patients.

Michelle: Clinicians are taught to promote the wrong “why’s.” We’ve all been socialized to do it, including me. Instead of asking patients to focus on their weight and better health, it’s better to teach them that by making choices that favor self care, they’re actually going to feel and function better. That’s what the patient cares more about.

If clinicians communicate with the patients in ways that hook into what patients care about, it will be much more likely that the patient will be deeply engaged than if the doctor says, “You know, this is going to reduce your risk of getting X disease by 20%,” or, “Your numbers will change if you do this.” No. Those are abstractions. We need people to understand the real value of the behavior today, right now, not in the next 20 years.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.