Need to Exercise More? Think How It Will Help You Now

Shifting from long-term to short-term gains will resonate better, experts say

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Jan. 13 (HealthDay News) -- Health and fitness experts have for years tried to entice people to exercise more by flogging long-range benefits such as losing weight or avoiding long-term illness caused by chronic disease.

They might have been going about it all wrong. Research now appears to show that "improve your heart health" may be a less effective message than "feel better now."

A University of Michigan study found that people are more apt to exercise when they're given reasons that apply to their immediate, day-to-day life. For example, telling someone they will have more energy after working out seems to be a more effective motivation than telling them they will be less likely to develop diabetes.

Michelle Segar, the study's lead author, said she believes the results indicate a need to "rebrand" exercise so that health organizations that promote exercise will see better results from their efforts.

"We need to develop new messaging that teaches people that physical activity is a way to reduce their stress in the moment, feel better in the moment, create more energy in the moment," said Segar, a research investigator with the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan. "You're a more patient parent. You enjoy your work more. You don't snap at your spouse as much. The benefits of exercise help you lead a more pleasant and productive life. The messaging needs to go there."

The study focused on a randomly selected set of 385 women, 40 to 60 years old, who were given several questionnaires over the course of a year related to exercise and health.

The women's responses indicated that they valued long-term goals like weight loss as much as short-term goals more directly linked to day-to-day quality of life, such as stress reduction. Nonetheless, Segar and her team found that women who cited short-term factors exercised more often than those who felt long-term goals were most important.

"The women who exercised for quality of life did significantly more exercise than the other two groups," Segar said. Those who exercised based on daily quality of life worked out 15 percent to 34 percent more often, the study found.

This argues strongly for a reassessment of how exercise is promoted, Segar said.

"Health and healthy aging are very abstract," she said. "We may endorse them as important, but the problem lies in the fact that we live very busy, complicated lives. When you're looking at your daily to-do list, how compelling is fitting in exercise for a reason that's far in the future, where you might never notice? If you're exercising to enhance the quality of your daily life because it reduces your stress or improves your mood, you notice those things immediately. And if you don't exercise, you immediately notice you feel worse."

Messages that might resonate better with people who need to exercise more often, she said, include that exercise is a way to:

  • Become a more pleasant member of your family by feeling better.
  • Improve your productivity at work because working out makes your mind more focused.
  • Relieve day-to-day stress.
  • Improve your mood.
  • Enjoy higher levels of energy and vitality.
  • Spend more social time with others.
  • Take time to enjoy the outdoors.

Though those are compelling arguments for exercise, groups might want to think twice before removing long-term goals from their marketing strategies, said Walter Thompson, a professor of exercise science in the department of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University and a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine.

Long-term goals like weight loss tend to be measurable, whereas short-term goals like improved energy are largely subjective, Thompson said.

"The problem with the long-term goal is they can get to the 5½-months point and not lose a pound," he said. "That's the argument for the short-term goal. But without a long-term goal, it's hard to come up with short-term goals."

Short-term goals also might not apply to everyone because they're subjective, he added.

"I like to run, but I remember days when I just felt miserable after my run," Thompson said. "If I only looked at short-term goals, if I felt bad one day, I may not do it the second day."

More information

The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports offers guidelines for personal exercise programs.

SOURCES: Michelle Segar, Ph.D., M.P.H., research investigator, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich.; Walter Thompson, Ph.D., regents professor, exercise science, department of kinesiology and health, Georgia State University, Atlanta

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