Sex, Chocolate And Exercise: The Wonderful News About Fitness In 2016

(Daniel Huizinga/Flickr)
(Daniel Huizinga/Flickr)

Most of us have been taught to exercise in a very prescriptive way, says fitness motivation expert Dr. Michelle Segar: certain amounts, at a certain intensity, check your heart rate, breathe hard and sweat or it doesn't count.

"Now sidestep over to another topic," she says. "Imagine how people would feel about sex if they were prescribed how to do it. Get in this position. Breathe at this rate. It would turn even something as glorious as sex into a chore.

"Without joy," she says,  "you lose your confidence, and exercise is just another thing to feel guilty about."

And no one needs that. Last year, around this time, I would have been writing a rundown of the myriad new findings on all the health benefits of exercise, from saving money to living longer. I used to write that kind of thing a lot, scores of posts headlined "Why To Exercise Today." I figured it was a public service, that we all just needed a big enough dose of information, and the call of the gym would become irresistible.

But this year, I underwent a deep conversion experience. I worked on "The Magic Pill," a 21-episode mini-podcast, so named because exercise is the closest thing we have to a magic pill for your health. (You can sign up here for daily audio emails, or listen on demand here.) We called it "your daily dose of get-up-and-go," every episode "filled with 10 minutes of new science, big ideas, quick tips, and some uplifting music."

Here's the key, news far better than any year-end list of health benefits: "It's all about helping to shift your mindset from seeing exercise as a chore and a pain, to seeing it as a gift, a treat, even a joy."

I'm thrilled to inform you that this is a cutting edge of exercise motivation science as 2016 draws to a close: If you want to get yourself to exercise more, long-term abstract desires to be healthier or lose weight are less likely to motivate you than a focus on the more immediate rewards, a.k.a. pleasure, uplift, well-being. Your daily quality of life. Knowing you'll feel better fast. Even, perhaps, actually enjoying your walk or elliptical workout in real-time.

This is the gospel of the "chore to gift" advocate, Dr. Michelle Segar of the University of Michigan, author of “No Sweat: How The Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You A Lifetime of Fitness."

As she says in the podcast, "The fascinating thing is, research shows that abstract health reasons for exercising, like weight loss or avoiding a future illness, are actually less motivating than moving because you want to feel better, or have fun, or reduce your stress, or enhance your well-being."

She cites a very telling study: "They randomized people to two groups: One was told that a one-mile walk was for exercise, and the other was told that the exact same walk was for fun. At the end of the walk — and this finding was replicated — the people who were told that the walk was exercise had worse moods, they were more depleted from the walk, and they ate worse food choices."

My Magic Pill co-host and sage, Dr. Eddie Phillips, director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School, says his experience bears out Segar's thesis: "When I ask my patients who are exercising 'Why do you exercise?' They say, 'Because it makes me feel good right away.' "

The burgeoning field of lifestyle medicine adds still more good news. Yes, there are official recommendations for exercise — at least 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, among others. But as Eddie puts it, in the exercise world, "something is better than nothing."

It all counts. Every flight of stairs. Every step from the distant parking spot to the store. Even every time you rise from your chair. Eddie says there are two central goals: To get some real exercise, but also just to break up sitting time, get off the couch or the chair. Both are good.

By now, you're surely wondering what all this has to do with the chocolate in the headline.

Under Segar's influence, Eddie tells me, he had a recent 3 a.m. epiphany. She talks about the motivating power of our immediate, emotional response to exercise. And that, he suddenly realized, is incredibly similar to how we respond to food.

You may read volumes about what you should and shouldn't eat, he says, but if you go to a holiday party that serves chicken wings and chocolate, and you love chocolate, you'll reach for it. Why?

"Because emotionally, I'll feel better. And I enjoy the sensation and the flavor of it. I'll want it so much that I'll be fighting not to eat too much of it," he says. "What if exercise were like that?"

It's not, you may be saying. But imagine, he says, feeling like "Wow, I just really want to go for a walk." If you were fully in touch with the pleasure of moving, mightn't it become like a snack that you crave?

Hard to imagine? Consider the biggest actual news event of 2016 in the exercise world: the "Pokemon Go" craze, and its stunning power to get all kinds of people compulsively roaming the streets at all hours, logging millions of steps with the millions of creatures they captured and hatched. If ever there was proof that exercise can — must — be fun, this was it. (Even if the effects were apparently short-lived.)

I asked Michelle Segar to fill in this blank: 2016 was the year we learned that ...

She replied: "... that our expectations about exercise influence what we feel when we do it, which further influences whether we decide to sustain it. It’s time for our field to replace dose-based exercise prescriptions with new ones that set people up to anticipate experiencing pleasure and meaning from moving their bodies.”

As for 2017, Segar's  new post on how to avoid the most common mistakes with New Year's resolution includes this relevant tip:

Replace the traditional health, weight-focused, or chore-based resolutions with resolutions aiming to cultivate fun and happiness. This is the same strategy that smart marketers use to create repeat customer behavior—and it works. Why not harness human nature rather than go against it?


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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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