And then one day, as I lazed on the couch while my husband trotted out the door, looking downright gleeful at the prospect of a good, sweaty run, I realized I didn’t just hate working out; I was also jealous of anybody who seemed to enjoy it, from my husband, a runner and rock-climbing junkie, to every personal trainer I’d ever hired, to every workout host whose DVD I’d turned off halfway through (that would be all of them) because I couldn’t take their chipper attitude any longer. I wanted to think of my workouts as fun—I just had no idea how to make that happen. So I called Michelle Segar, Ph.D., a motivation psychologist at the University of Michigan and associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls. Segar, who has been studying what motivates women to exercise for more than a decade, told me something that upended my thoughts about it: “Many women hate to work out because we’ve been taught to do it for the wrong reasons.”
According to research by Segar and others, most of us exercise because we want to lose weight, but we give up when the pounds fail to come off quickly enough. In fact, according to one of Segar’s studies, women who cite weight loss as their primary motivation for exercise actually exercise less than those who cite other reasons.
Given how many women want to be thin—45 percent of women are on a diet on any given day, and 83 percent of college-age women are on a diet (regardless of how skinny they are)—I was surprised. But as Segar explained, “The problem is that this negative message frames exercise as something we should force our bodies to do, whether we like it or not, to meet an impossible standard. It’s fitness as the modern corset.” And lest I thought “health” (the motivator I like to cite since it sounds less shallow) could spur me to the gym, Segar pointed me back to her own research. “Health is too vague and long term,” she explained. “You aren’t worried about having a heart attack at 60 when you make the decision to sleep through your morning run today.” Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control, only 48 percent of American adults are getting enough exercise to make a dent in their overall health.
Now I really couldn’t imagine what might get me to exercise, so I signed up for Segar’s Essential Steps coaching program, which is designed to help you figure out your personal motivations—and what working out (or “being active,” as Segar prefers to call it) should actually look like for you. The program combines homework (reading and questionnaires that you fill out on your own time) with six weekly hour-long phone sessions. But before we explored what meaning I had attached to exercise over the course of my life—”boring,” “hard,” “no pain/no gain,” “not something I’m good at but I have to do it anyway” were some of the phrases I jotted down—Segar first made me promise that I’d cease all weight-loss efforts while we worked together. “Weight loss isn’t your goal right now,” she said. “Actually, we should look at why you think exercise has to be all about weight loss in the first place,” I explained to Segar that I’d been a skinny girl up until college, the girl who didn’t gain a pound despite eating foot-long Subway sandwiches every day after school and avoiding any activity that might make me sweat.
“So you lost your free pass,” she replied. “And then you decided that working out was your punishment for not being skinny anymore.” Oh. Right.
Thinking about how I’d come to view exercise as a punishment made me reassess the year I ran two half-marathons, which I had previously remembered, fondly, as That Time in My Twenties When I Was Briefly High School Size Again. Yes, I lost 20 pounds in the process. And yes, I felt proud on both race days (even the first one, when I’d eaten bad salmon the night before and proceeded to throw up spectacularly all over the finish line). But even 20 pounds lighter, I was more preoccupied with my weight that year than any other, constantly estimating how many calories a long run had burned and when that would result in another pound lost. I grimaced through every run, berating myself for not going faster or farther; when I weighed myself after my second half-marathon, I was so appalled that I’d gained two pounds that I couldn’t enjoy my accomplishment.
At our next session, Segar and I talked about how, despite obsessive thoughts, stress fractures, and exercise-induced asthma, I still insisted on running. “It’s the gold standard of exercise,” I offered. “I love yoga, but it doesn’t really count. Shouldn’t I be doing cardio?”
But according to Segar and other exercise experts, yoga is cardio, since it moves major muscle groups and increases your heart rate. Of course, there are degrees of intensity. To get the maximum health benefit from your workouts—to lose weight or stave off long-term problems such as heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes—most exercise physiologists say you need regular cardio in the sense of sweaty, heart-thumping workouts such as running or cycling. The official recommendation for adults from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is two and half hours of “moderate-intensity” (defined as being able to talk but not sing) aerobic activity per week. You get additional health benefits, they note, if you can increase that to five hours. And some research does suggest that harder may be better: Over 10 years, people who reported regular brisk walking or jogging also saw their risk for metabolic syndrome (a combination of symptoms that increases your chance of heart disease and diabetes) cut in half, while people who walked slowly (even up to an hour per day) experienced no such benefit, according to data on 10,000 adults from the Copenhagen City Heart Study.
Other studies, however, show solid improvements from a more moderate approach to exercise. When University of Alabama researchers directly supervised the workout programs of 72 women last year, they found that those who jogged and lifted weights just twice a week gained as much strength and aerobic fitness and burned almost 300 calories more per day as those doing the same workout six days per week over the course of four months. Those hard-core exercisers were burning nearly 200 calories less per day by the end of the study, possibly because they were so exhausted from all that scheduled physical activity that they avoided other opportunities to move, such as taking the stairs or walking to run an errand. Another study published last year by researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that subjects who exercised just 30 minutes per day lost more weight than those who clocked hour-long workouts because the longer bouts made them eat more and move less.
When Segar gives presentations on her approach to exercise in rooms filled with other public-health experts, inevitably an exercise physiologist or trainer stands up appalled when she talks about her moderate approach to fitness. “We need people to be getting their heart rate up and burning calories or they’ll never lose weight!” he cries. She understands the sentiment but doesn’t agree. “The problem with all of this research is that it tells us what is optimal for our health under laboratory settings where scientists can control everything, from exactly how much and how hard you exercise to how much you eat, drink, and sleep,” she says. “We may have identified a gold standard for how much we need to exercise in a lab, but it’s worthless once we take it out into the real world if people can’t sustain it.”
So Segar encourages her clients to disregard the two-and-half-hour standard if they can’t figure out how to apply it to their lives just yet: “Doesn’t it make more sense to focus on what you can do rather than trying and failing again and again?” But she’s quick to reassure me that this doesn’t mean I’ll never run another half-marathon, or even meet the basic goal of 30 minutes of movement five days a week. “Once you start small and find what works, you can build on that,” she explains. “When it comes to physical activity, it’s like we all need to go back to kindergarten and just play for a while—then we can graduate.” That’s when I realized that because I like yoga—it feels like playtime to me—I’d decided it couldn’t possibly count as a “real” workout. And it didn’t stop with yoga; there were so many other activities I enjoyed, everything from walking around New York City to hiking with my husband in the woods near our house (especially when I set our pace).
Segar told me to pay attention to why I liked certain activities more than others, which is how I noticed that for me yoga’s biggest draw was the friends with whom I attended class—and the chance to drink wine with them afterward. Old Virginia might have cited the wine as another reason why yoga “doesn’t count,” but since I wasn’t exercising to lose weight, this point was delightfully moot. Hiking with my husband gave us a chance to catch up at the end of a long week. And fitting in any type of exercise after work left me in a better mood and ready to relax when I got home.
“We’re cultivating your lifelong relationship with movement. Only you can decide what that looks like day to day,” Segar told me. About halfway through my work with her, I noticed a subtle shift: If I couldn’t exercise on any given day, I was disappointed, but I didn’t feel guilty. In the past, if I missed two workouts in a row, I would get so discouraged that I might not see the gym or the yoga studio for another month. If I didn’t have time for at least a 45-minute run, I wouldn’t bother with just a 20-minute one. That all-or-nothing thinking derails many a workout, according to Segar, so together we brainstormed strategies that on crazy days would help me fit in even a brief one: doing a 30-minute yoga podcast in my kitchen while I made dinner, or even just walking for 10 minutes. Again, I wanted to get tangled up in calorie burns, but Segar held firm: “Consistency matters more than quantity.” But I could also give myself permission to skip the workout altogether. “If you’re truly motivated to make physical activity a part of your life, taking a day or even a week off is fine,” she explained. “You can trust that you’ll get back to it tomorrow or next week.”
Three months after my time with Segar, I have to report that I haven’t lost a smidge of weight. But I’m also working out more regularly and happily than I ever have. That means I have better stamina for harder workouts and more energy throughout my day. I’ve also noticed that regular exercise has kept my migraines and asthma in check. I can see muscle definition coming back to my arms, abs, and legs, and yoga moves that felt far beyond my reach a few months ago are now a part of my practice.
But the mental shift still feels like the most profound change. I find myself racing through work in the afternoons to ensure I don’t miss my favorite yoga classes. Almost every morning, I go for a walk or a hike. Some days it’s half an hour and lots of hills. Other days it’s 10 minutes and completely flat. I’m okay with both. And now that the warm weather is here, I’m even thinking about lacing up my running shoes again. Just to see where I might go.
Liked this story? Get it first when you subscribe to ELLE magazine.