Health & Family

Struggle with working out? Think about immediate rewards, not long-term goals

Those seeking long-term weight loss and better health exercise the least, studies have shown. Short-term gains like energy are better motivators.
Those seeking long-term weight loss and better health exercise the least, studies have shown. Short-term gains like energy are better motivators. NYT

I was going to skip my daily swim the other morning. I had walked 3 miles with a friend and taken my dog to the park for his exercise. I was really tired, my back was sore, I had a column to write and lots to do around the house.

But I knew from experience that I would feel much better after 40 minutes of swimming laps. So in I went. And, yes, I did feel better – not just refreshed, but more energetic, clearheaded and better prepared than I would have been otherwise to tackle the day’s essentials.

Michelle Segar, who directs the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan, would say I had reframed my exercise experience, making it ever more likely that I would continue to swim – even on days when I didn’t feel like doing it – because I viewed it as a positive, restorative activity. Indeed, exercise is something I do not because I have to or was told to, but because I know it makes me feel better.

Segar, a psychologist who specializes in helping people adopt and maintain regular exercise habits, is the author of “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.” Her research has shown that even people who say they hate to exercise or have repeatedly fallen off the exercise wagon can learn to enjoy it and stick with it.

Three years ago, I wrote about research by Segar and others showing that promoting physical activity to prevent or control disease, lose weight or sculpt one’s body, and prescribing doses as if exercise were medicine, wouldn’t get most people to do it and keep doing it.

“Health is not an optimal way to make physical activity relevant and compelling enough for most people to prioritize in their hectic lives,” Segar said in an interview.

Studies have shown that people whose goals are weight loss and better health tend to spend the least amount of time exercising. That is true even for older adults, a study of 335 men and women ages 60 to 95 showed.

Rather, 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, Segar and others have found.

Motivation strategies

In her new book, she describes strategies to get even the most sedentary people off their duffs, starting with ways to overcome past failures and negative feelings about exercise that make it feel more like punishment than pleasure.

Instead of the recommended half-hour a day or 10-minute doses of moderate exercise three times a day on most days, Segar suggests focusing on the idea that “everything counts” – taking the stairs instead of the elevator, weeding the garden, dancing, even walking to the water cooler.

Segar suggests: “There are so many options – what do I feel like doing today? – then picking the ‘flavor' of physical activity that feels right for that day and moment.”

Also important is giving oneself permission to make self-care through physical activity a priority. Segar wrote: “When we do not prioritize our own self-care because we are busy serving others, our energy is not replenished. Instead, we are exhausted, and our ability to be there for anyone or anything else is compromised.”

Citing a “paradox of self-care,” Segar wrote, “The more energy you give to caring for yourself, the more energy you have for everything else.” She suggests viewing physical activity as a power source for everything else you want to accomplish. “What sustains us, we sustain.”

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