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Dr. Michelle Segar

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 External link. 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 External link.

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Please read our disclaimer regarding this interview.

Interview With an Expert Who Studies Women and Exercise: Dr. Michelle Segar

Have you ever made a resolution to exercise and then found that you couldn’t stick with your exercise plan? Dr. Michelle Segar is an expert in behavior and exercise. She studies the reasons why women between the ages of 40 and 60 exercise. She developed her SMART method to help women find the right reasons to exercise. Learn more about which reasons help an exercise program stick for women.

We all know that it's hard to maintain an exercise plan. Which things contribute to long‑term changes in behavior? In other words, what makes an exercise plan 'stick?'

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.

You study motivation to exercise in 40 to 60‑year‑old women. What are some of the factors that motivate women to exercise in midlife?

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 pdfInternational Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity exit disclaimer (PDF, 447 KB).

How does motivation to live healthy differ in men and women?

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.

Your approach to motivation and healthy living has a scientific basis in behavioral research. How do you bring research findings into real life?

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:

  • Self‑caring: Self‑caring individuals bring change out of respect for themselves. They want to nurture their sense of well‑being and create positive daily living experiences.
  • Mindful: Being mindful is about taking your mind off autopilot and living in the here and now.
  • Autonomous: Being autonomous means taking responsibility for our daily energy. It means being willing to buck the trend, whether it's a fad diet, an exercise plan, or the advice and well‑meaning intentions of those who love us best.
  • Respectful: SMART women respect their bodies. They respect their own limitations and know what they can and can't do. They also respect their own needs and say "no" when necessary.
  • Tolerant: Being tolerant means being flexible and adjusting to life on life's terms instead of beating yourself up because you're not "in synch" with what's happening around you.

The core reason for change, in SMART, goes beyond "better health" to fostering daily self‑care, joy, and well‑being.

What is your favorite healthy living tip?

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.

Can you debunk any exercise myths for us?

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!

If you can give one message to women about healthy living, what would that be?

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.

We always hear about the newest diet from the media. What is your take on dieting and how does it affect success?

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.

What is your guilty pleasure?

I love dark chocolate, candied ginger, and getting massages.

Content last updated December 20, 2011.

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