Change the “Why” of Exercise

How a Simple Change in Thought Process Can Help You Escape American Exercise Norms

Written by Caitlin Schille

More exercise is a good New Year’s resolution, no doubt, but there is a disconnect—the CDC says only 1 in 5 Americans get the physical activity they need. One experienced researcher says it’s because our reasons for exercising aren’t motivating enough, and she has the research to back up her theory.

Dr. Michelle Segar, director of the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan, wants to change the way people think about exercise. With twenty years of research experience under her belt, Dr. Segar asserts that changing the reasons we exercise will change our exercise habits.

Sound too easy? Let’s walk through the mental framework of exercise. Why do you exercise? Typical motivation to exercise includes weight loss and health. In fact, one of Dr. Segar’s studies found that the majority of study participants listed either weight loss or health promotion as their top motivation to exercise. The kicker? The study also showed that people who cited weight loss or health promotion as their reason for physical activity actually exercised the least!

You’d think weight loss or general health would be enough to keep us in the gym, but research suggests it is not. The rewards may not be immediate enough to keep us motivated.

Dr. Segar wants to change the reasoning from weight loss and better health to simply feeling better. Focusing on weight loss and better health cause the benefits of exercise to be thought of as an abstract concept to be reaped in the future. Dr. Segar believes focusing on feeling better causes the benefits of exercise to be immediate.

“Immediate rewards that enhance daily life—more energy, a better mood, less stress and more opportunity to connect with friends and family—offer far more motivation,” she said in an interview.

After all, our current culture is one of instant gratification, which may be a driving force behind obesity and the lack of exercise. So as you set a new exercise goal, keep in mind this phrase: “I exercise to feel better.” You can acknowledge that a healthy weight and a healthy body may be side effects of exercise, but focus on feeling better as your primary motivation. “Feeling better” consists of immediate benefits such as increased happiness, reduced stress, increased energy, decreased symptoms of depression, and a boost to self-esteem.

So remember, exercise gives you incredible benefits in the present, even if weight loss lies further down the road.


*Check out Michelle Segar’s new book HERE

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