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Michelle Segar, Ph.D., M.P.H. is the Associate Director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center for Women and Girls, a collaboration between the University of Michigan and the Women's Sports Foundation . She holds a doctorate in psychology (Ph.D.) and master's degrees in health behavior‑health education (M.P.H.) and kinesiology (M.S.) from the University of Michigan. She is a well-being and self-care coach for women, and is writing a book called Smart Women Don't Diet. Dr. Segar speaks around the United States to women's groups and health behavior professionals. For more information, visit her website, www.michellesegar.com .
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The most important factor for staying motivated is the reason why a woman decides to change her behavior. Our reasons for changing a behavior determine whether that specific behavior is important enough to keep it on the top of our "To Do" lists. Busy women have many goals and priorities. So, to make sure that a new behavior remains a top priority, we need to make sure that our purpose for doing it has a real and important benefit in our daily lives. So, for example, if it’s important for you to have energy when spending time with your children or grandchildren, or while at work, you are more likely to exercise if you focus on how exercise will help you feel more energetic in those situations.
Most women would say that they exercise for "weight" or "health‑related" reasons. That is not surprising because we've been taught to exercise specifically for these reasons! I found that women who exercise to improve their daily living experience in some way (like to have more energy, less stress, or feel happier) actually feel more motivated to exercise. You can read about this (for free!) in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (PDF, 447 KB).
Research shows that women and men respond differently to advertisements about exercising. Men and women value different things. For women, we found that "feeling better" is a better motivator than "looking better." Women often start exercising to "lose weight" or "look better." But those motivations lead to behavior that stops and starts. When women realize that exercise can help them feel better, they are more likely to stick with their exercise program. On the other hand, many men value “competition” as their reason for exercising. Our research showed that women listed “competition” as the least important reason to exercise.
Translating research into real life is something I am passionate about! These research findings connect what women and men most value in life. As a result, the findings can help people be creative and write messages that are inspirational, motivational, and relevant for people who want to change their lives with exercise. In short, the findings can get people to exercise and to be healthy!
For example, I've turned research findings into a new message and tool to help women stay motivated to take care of themselves. I ask women to be strategic and SMART. SMART women are:
The core reason for change, in SMART, goes beyond "better health" to fostering daily self‑care, joy, and well‑being.
You should only change one new behavior at a time. In order to lose weight, we've been told to eat better and get more exercise. Most people think that changing diet and physical activity at the same time is the best approach. But, as we all know, women juggle many roles and responsibilities. Because of this, we simply don't have enough time, attention, and energy to learn both behaviors at the same time in ways we can sustain. New research shows that our "willpower muscle" gets weak as we use it. So, we can have better willpower if we focus on fewer things, instead of more, and change just one thing at a time. Start by adding healthy foods to your diet. Then, when that becomes habit, add more exercise.
We've been taught that exercising at high intensities is the "best" way to exercise. But there's more and more research showing that all physical movement counts, even lower‑level activities like gardening or walking. There is even research showing that women, but not men, have better mood and mental health when they exercise at lower intensity levels compared to higher ones. Walking at a pace that feels good is a great way to exercise. Any type of movement you do can help you become healthier and happier. Try to find as many opportunities to move as you can everyday!
Self‑care isn't selfish, it's smart! You are the center of your very full life. If you don't decide to take time to take care of yourself, no one else will. "Healthy living" isn't about being perfect. It is about taking one step at a time toward taking care of yourself.
I believe that "dieting" disconnects us from our bodies. If we don't learn to listen to our bodies, we can't become familiar with signals telling us when we've eaten enough. There are some great programs that teach the skill of "intuitive eating" so that women are able to learn how to reconnect to true hunger and fullness. It is a challenge for many women (and men) to stop eating for emotional reasons so they can better maintain their weight.
Content last updated December 20, 2011.