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, PhD, a motivation psychologist at the Univer-sity 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 worrying 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…