You’ve heard the health-and-fitness message your whole life: “To get healthy and fit, and stay that way, you need regular exercise—preferably, an intense workout three or four times a week for at least 40 minutes.” That’s the message we get from health professionals, from fitness experts, from the media, even from the US government. You’ve probably used this sensible message to motivate yourself to start and stick to an exercise regimen, and to motivate friends and family to get out there and exercise. And you may have felt really, really bad when—after a few months, or a few weeks, or even a few days—you or those you care about failed to stick with the program.
But the fault is not in us, it’s in the message.
Why the Old Message Doesn’t Work
Most healthcare and health promotion professionals, and people who have happily participated in sports and exercise all their lives, assume that the promise of “better health” in the future is a valuable prize that will motivate people to practice the lifestyle behaviors necessary for healthy living, weight loss, and disease prevention. Yet research confirms what we already know: as a way to get people to start exercising and keep exercising, it’s a dud:
• Not compelling: The promise of future health benefits is too abstract to overcome inertia and hectic schedules. When motivation is linked to distant, clinical, or abstract goals, health behaviors are simply not compelling enough to trump the many other daily goals and priorities with which they constantly compete.
• Too shaming: Body-shaping motivators—losing weight, getting in “beach shape,” being more attractive—are based in self-rejection, particularly for women. And they also fail to motivate long-term behavior.
• Too future oriented: Our brains are hardwired to choose rewards that make us feel good right now. That’s why it’s so easy to choose the living room couch over driving to the gym after a hard day at work, or the bag of cookies over the carrots and celery.
Health, beauty, and fitness are all sensible goals, but they are also what I call the Wrong Whys for starting an exercise program.
You can easily identify a Wrong Why by how it makes you feel about pursuing the self-care activity it motivates: It’s a chore. You feel as if you “should” do it (because it’s good for you) or “have to” do it (because your doctor told you so or it’s that time of year to try losing weight again). Exercise driven by these kinds of reasons just can’t compete with our other daily tasks and responsibilities once we get past our initial burst of motivation.
For many people, behavior that begins with the Wrong Why eventually leads to cyclical rather than sustainable behavior—start, stop, start again, stop again, feeling more demoralized with each iteration. Because this is often the only model people have been taught, most have been stuck repeating the same cycle for 10, 20, or even 30-plus years.
Incredibly, by just changing the message, we can transform this vicious cycle of failure into a sustainable cycle of success. So let’s change the message now!
The New Message Starts with the Right Why
We know that our brains respond best to immediate, positive rewards—gifts we give ourselves every time take an opportunity to enjoy physical movement. So why not choose to move in ways we enjoy, that make us feel great, and that fuel us for all the things we need to accomplish?
Here’s the new message: “If you want to feel great right now and have more energy for what matters most, today, give yourself permission to move your body every day, for any amount of time, in a way that feel good to you.”
I’ve found that this motivator makes sense not only to people who have enjoyed exercise and/or sports all their lives, but to non-athletes who have tried and failed at physical programs many times. It enables a sustainable approach to exercise—one most people can stick with for life. And that’s because it’s the Right Why: not an “I should” but an “I want to!”
About the book:
No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness translates twenty years of research on exercise and motivation into a simple four-point program, helping readers understand why most people lose their motivation to exercise, drop out of gyms, and dislike exercising. No Sweat was written to help people who have struggled to stay motivated as well as the professionals and organizations that work with them. Practical, proven, and loaded with inspiring stories, No Sweat shows how to help people convert exercise from a chore into a gift, motivating a lifetime of exercise.
About the Author
MICHELLE SEGAR, PH.D., motivation scientist and author of No Sweat! How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness is the leading authority on what motivates people to choose and maintain physically active lives. Segar is Director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center (SHARP) at the University of Michigan, and Chairs the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan’s Communications Committee, charged with advising the Plan on more persuasive messaging for American people and policymakers. Her expertise has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Prevention, Oprah and her corporate clients include global organizations such as Adidas, Walmart, and PepsiCo. She also ran with the Olympic Torch in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband and son. For more information, michellesegar.com