Column: Happiness in Motion

Health, weight-loss gains aren't best motivators for exercise
Jo Mathis

Jo Mathis

I attended an open house at The Health & Fitness Center at Washtenaw Community College not because I wanted to work out, but because I’d heard it was the most fantastic rec center in the entire world.

I learned two things that day: It really is the most fantastic rec center in the world. And working out can indeed be that joyful, endorphin-releasing high I’ve heard about but rarely experienced.

I felt strong. I felt pampered. I wanted to sell my house and move closer to WCC so I could work out every morning and live happily ever after.

At the very least, I hoped a bit of that excitement would carry over long enough to pump up the at-home workouts. Didn’t happen. Not even a little. I have an elliptical machine in my office next to a window facing a TV. I have no excuse other than this: I don’t wanna.

Can anyone else relate? It’s two months into the new year. How’s that work-out resolution working out?

If your motivation was to lose weight and become healthier, odds are, it’s not.

Health and Weight Loss: Not Compelling Reasons

Those who exercise for the health and weight-loss benefits are less likely to keep at it than those who do so for more immediate tangible benefits, says Dr. Michelle Segar, a motivation psychologist at the University of Michigan.

Health may be a motivator for retirees who have plenty of free time to exercise, but for those with busier schedules, “improve health via exercise” will not be high on a lengthy to-do list.

There’s a difference between what’s important and what’s compelling. “Because we’re so busy, we only fit things in our lives that are compelling,” Segar says. “I think there’s been a huge marketing faux pax by the fitness industry and health care, who’ve made an assumption that because exercise is good for your health, that’s a good reason to motivate people to exercise. But my research and experience coaching individuals has led me to believe that this is a harmful assumption and undermines individuals from sustaining physically active lives.”

MIchelle Segar

Michelle Segar

Weight loss isn’t a good motivator, either. Not for the long haul, anyhow. People are very motivated to exercise by the thought of exercise – for a week or two. And then it wanes until the next upcoming wedding or beach party.

“Exercising is trumped by dietary changes in producing weight loss, so you’re not going to get great feedback that you’re losing weight from exercise,” Segar said. “Weight loss absolutely gets people to start exercising – again, and again, and again, and again.”

Even the word “exercise” brings to mind negative feelings, beliefs and images, which is why Segar prefers the word “movement.”

Instead of telling yourself you should exercise 30 minutes because it will make you healthier and help you lose weight, Segar says, you could decide to move your body because it enhances the quality of daily life – whether that’s by improving your mood, decreasing stress, enhancing well-being, or offering a chance to socialize.

What Makes It Compelling: Happiness

As a result of moving your body regularly, you’ll notice how much better you feel, said Segar. And that translates into the bottom-line thing we’re all seeking: Happiness.

And once you start to feel happier from moving your body more, you notice the difference when you stop. You feel more stressed. You feel a little bit down. You don’t sleep as well.

“We have to completely reframe why we’re exercising to get a different downstream result,” says Segar. “And once we do that, we’ll have a completely different experience. We’ll discover that physical activity really becomes a gift we want to give ourselves instead of a chore to accomplish.”

She prefers being outdoors to using home exercise equipment. But for those of us who like to use it, she suggests that instead of saying, “I’m going to force myself to get on the elliptical and work hard for 30 minutes,” I should say, “I’m going to give myself the gift of movement for 5 minutes.”

Maybe 5 will lead to 10 which could lead to 30. Maybe not.

“But if you don’t like it and you’re not going to do it, you’re getting no benefit,” she says. “So some is better than nothing. With our crazy lives, we have to consider that that’s a better message for people.”

“We’ve been socialized for 25 or 30 years that more is better, bigger is better, intense is better. But most people a) don’t like to exercise intensely for the most part, and b) can’t fit chunks of 30 to 60 minutes into their daily lives. If that’s the case, then we’re going to get a population of people who don’t exercise. Which of course is what we have.”

Michelle Segar at the Ann Arbor YMCA

Michelle Segar doing crunches at the Ann Arbor YMCA this week.

Segar says she intends to move her body on most days. Walking is her favorite, and if she misses a few days in a row, she doesn’t beat herself up about it. And she lifts weights, mindful to prevent injury. Segar loves working out – excuse me, moving – at the Ann Arbor YMCA once or twice a week.

“Social support and a sense of community are extra perks of being physically active with others, so seeing people that I like and know adds to the whole experience for me,” she says.

“The best motivation is to notice how you feel, how your daily life changes from moving. Remind yourself that ‘Moving more improves my day.’ Once people notice how much better they feel, that kind of mantra should be very helpful.”

Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good mantra, but it’s already working for me. Occasionally throughout the day now, I’ll get on the elliptical – or pull out those weights – and get on with it. I remind myself that the ability and freedom to move is a privilege not to be squandered. A path to contentment – a gift we give ourselves.

About the author: Jo Mathis is an Ann Arbor-based writer.


  1. By zollar
    March 6, 2011 at 6:17 am | permalink

    It would be helpful if their fees were listed on their site.The YMCA and Washtenaw County Rec center have fees clearly avaliable on their web sites.

  2. By Jo Mathis
    March 6, 2011 at 8:46 am | permalink

    Zollar, the monthly fee at WCC is $60 which is directly withdrawn from your checking account. There is also a registration fee.

  3. March 6, 2011 at 5:54 pm | permalink

    A couple of years ago, we heard Michelle Segar’s excellent presentation on reframing why we should exercise–or as she puts it: “move our bodies.” The talk was given at the Women’s Health and Fitness, a free 1/2 day program usually held in February at Ypsilanti High School and coordinated by the women medical students of the University of Michigan.

  4. By Lily Au
    March 7, 2011 at 9:59 am | permalink

    Yes, I called and checked the annual membership fee. It ended up my call being transferred, then to an answering machine. I suggest that their fees should have been on their site.