by Beth Shepard   Beth's profile on LinkedIn  

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“I know I need more exercise, but I just can’t stay motivated.” In wellness, we hear this a lot  — from the people we serve, as well as family and friends; we may have even said it ourselves.

The problem, according to motivation scientist Michelle Segar, is that most people start with the wrong whys. In No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (AMACOM, 2015), Dr. Segar offers a captivating case for changing the way we think about — and promote — physical activity.

Exercise is often viewed as a chore — something we have to do for weight loss, better health, or disease prevention. These sound like good reasons, but as Dr. Segar writes, they don’t provide the immediate rewards and feedback we need to consistently do it. “A lot of people aren’t motivated because the wrong ‘whys’ don’t make the behavior compelling to them,” she explains. When people focus on the immediate rewards of exercise — more energy, better mood, enhanced quality of life — they’re more likely to stick with it.

Dr. Segar details an exciting new model to help people see exercise as a gift. This profound shift can lead to a lifelong habit of physical activity enjoyment, and ultimately, better health and quality of life. Based on decades of research at the University of Michigan, her MAPS model (Meaning, Awareness, Permission, Strategy) offers hope — and lasting results — for everyone.

How to Help
We asked Dr. Segar for advice on using No Sweat concepts in the workplace wellness context. She offers these strategies:

  1. Help people change their Meaning and raise their Awareness for exercise. “It’s not their fault they haven’t been successful with exercise; the approach they’ve learned from our culture has set them up to fail. My clients feel a sense of relief when they understand this. We like to confirm what we believe, so ask people to identify specific beliefs that have been undermining their motivation.” To boost Awareness, Dr. Segar gives clients an “exorcise exercise” activity — they write down their unhelpful beliefs, then rip up the paper and throw it away. “This creates a new space to develop new, personally meaningful beliefs about exercise.”
  2. Move away from formal fitness guidelines. “The new message is ‘help everyone be successful where they are right now’; all activities count.” Not everyone agrees, says Segar. “The resistance has been from people who say we have to get to a certain exercise level for physiological benefits. But is what we’ve been doing working, at a level that’s helping us achieve what we want to achieve? No. Given that, we need to transition into new beliefs about exercise.”
  3. Change the story. “Messaging creates meaning around the target behaviors; so communication has to change, and become aligned across the board.” If you’re teaching people to focus on how physical activity makes them feel better, “launching a weight loss program or biomedical screening — activities unrelated to feeling and function — will undermine the new why.” Typical messages won’t reel in the inactive segment of your population, either. “The only way we can get their attention — those who aren’t interested in exercise, or feel they’ve failed — is to target their experiences and spark their curiosity… like this: ‘Hate to exercise?’ ‘Curious about how you could stay motivated?’ ”
  4. Promote self-care. “Most people — men and women — don’t give themselves Permission to prioritize and value self-care. We get rewarded for working harder; we don’t consider self-care an ‘essential fuel.’ The research shows how essential energy is and how critical it is to health outcomes. These constructs aren’t just fluffy things; they’re real indicators of how people are doing.” Making exercise a habit, Segar points out, is actually a form of self-care.
  5. Teach sustainability Strategies. Most wellness programs don’t equip participants with strategies to help them stay active long-term. In No Sweat, Dr. Segar elaborates on learning and negotiation strategies essential for lasting success — like evaluating progress with nonjudgment and compassion. “Begin integrating these strategies alongside the whole mindset-shifting,” she advises.
  6. Rethink HRAs. “When integrated within a greater well-being philosophy and approach, there can be a positive role for HRAs, if they’re framed differently and ask different types of questions. I would focus on energy, well-being, and emotional types of outcomes that people know, can relate to, and that lead to life satisfaction.”

A Sea Change for Wellness
Educating the decision makers is vital to successfully promoting active lifestyles. “If the C-suite wants to invest in the wrong ‘whys,’ you’re unlikely to drive the lasting behavioral changes that are the levers leading to lasting health,” notes Segar. “Let the data tell the story. If you don’t have sustainability, you’re investing in a short-term outcome. We’re at the beginning of a huge sea change.”  

Michelle Segar, PhD, is a motivation scientist and author of the top-selling No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (AMACOM, 2015). She directs the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan. A free study guide for her book is available on

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