The One Exercise Motivation That Really Works

An expert reveals the surprising ways we sabotage shape-ups and how you can — finally! — get motivated to exercise.

By Virginia Sole-Smith
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As someone who’s spent the last 14 years studying the exercise habits of midlife women, Michelle Segar,PhD, MPH, knows a thing or two about what makes us tick when it comes to working out. Here, the 42-year-old psychology researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender shares what really works for us.

Q. Where do women over 40 go wrong when it comes to fitness?

A. They exercise for the two least motivating reasons: to lose weight and to protect their health. In our study of 156 women, 61 percent reported one or both of these as their top motivators, and they did the least amount of exercise.

Q. But if you exercised to lose weight, wouldn’t dropping pounds motivate you to keep going?

A. It might, but midlife women don’t always lose weight by exercising. So if you work out to lose weight and it doesn’t help, you’ll get frustrated and give up. I also wonder how beneficial it can be to exercise in such a negative way, where you’re constantly thinking, I’m not good enough, and I don’t like my body. Who wants to keep that up?

Q. Regular physical activity has proven health benefits for women. So why doesn’t that motivate us more?

A. This is one of my most fascinating findings: Midlife women who work fulltime and are currently healthy won’t stick with an exercise program just to protect their health. It has to do with priorities. If you don’t have a lot of leisure time and you’re feeling fine, you may not be able to squeeze exercise into your busy schedule.

Q. So what’s the best motivation for midlife women?

A. To improve your state of well-being — for example, improving mood and reducing stress. Only 26 percent of the women in my study said they exercised for mental health benefits, but those women exercised 30 percent more often than those who stated their top reason as physical health benefits or weight loss. Exercise can have a pretty immediate impact on your mood and stress level, and over time it also improves your memory and makes you physically healthier. So you get the instant payoff of your workout improving your day and the long-term benefits that make you want to keep doing it.

Q. But how do you train your brain to respond to a new incentive?

A. First you have to decide you want it. Then sit down and analyze your previous attempts at exercising. What were your motivations? Were they able to sustain your workouts? If not, ask yourself what you really want to get out of physical activity. What kind of exercise would help you achieve that and also be palatable?

Q. How long does brain retraining take?

A. When I coach women, I ask them to commit to four sessions over three weeks, because that gives you time to experiment and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. [For more info, go to] A lot of women need to say, You know what, I’m never going to like exercise while I’m doing it, but it will feel good to know I’m taking care of myself. That’s how they connect exercise to their sense of well-being, even when it’s not "fun."

Q. Let’s be honest. Most of us secretly hope we’ll get into our skinny jeans again. How can exercise help?

A. If you’re just starting out, my advice is to put the weight-loss goal on hold and focus on learning how to fit exercise into your life for at least six to nine months. Then start thinking about your diet. I’ve had a few clients do this, and their weight loss turned out to be quite effortless. Remember that to protect your heart and maintain your weight, your ultimate goal is to form a lifelong relationship with exercise.

Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2008.
Next: 28 Ways to Jump-Start Your Shape-Up Routine

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