At one point or another, we or someone we know is on a diet. We eat healthy and exercise, (with a few cheat days in between) to lose weight, but when we don't see results, we're hard on ourselves, and stop working out. Now, researchers at the University of Michigan suggest the key to weight loss is all in our head: we need to change the way we think about exercise.

Our expectations and beliefs about exercise can influence how successfully we're able to include physical activity into our daily routine.

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The study, published in BMC Public Health, and internally funded by the National Cancer Institute, found what makes us feel happy and successful overall can also be applied to our exercise regimen. For example, both active and inactive women reported what made them feel fulfilled: connecting with and helping others be happy and successful; being relaxed and free of pressures during their leisure time; and accomplishing goals of many sorts, from grocery shopping to career goals.

Yet, for inactive women, the way they felt and thought about exercise thwarted what made them feel happy and successful. For instance, they believe "valid" exercise must be intense, yet they want to feel relaxed during their leisure time; they feel pressured to exercise for health or to lose weight, yet during their leisure time they want to be free of pressures; and lastly, they believe success comes from achieving goals, but their expectations about how much, where, and how they should be exercising means they can't achieve their goals.

"Their beliefs about what exercise should consist of and their past negative experiences about what it feels like actually prevents them from successfully adopting and sustaining physically active lives," said Michelle Segar, study author, director of the University of Michigan's Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center, in a statement.

Furthermore, Segar believes misinformation or a lack of current physical activity guidelines, may be contributing to lack of motivation to exercise. In regards to losing weight or improving our health, the traditional recommendation we've heard is we should exercise at a high intensity for at least 30 minutes. This has worked for a small portion of the population, but it has failed to boost physical activity in the rest of the population. Currently, there are newer recommendations that allow lower intensity activity in shorter time spans that most people aren't aware of.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a total of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that will work all major muscle groups, including legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms. Moreover, 150 minutes can be broken down into smaller intervals during the way. For example, doing physical activity at a moderate or vigorous effort for at least 10 minutes at a time counts towards the CDC physical activity weekly requirement.

Segar believes the traditional approach to exercising could potentially harm motivation. The researchers found this exercise message conflicts with and undermines the experiences and goals most women have for themselves. However, active women had more flexible views of exercise; they did not think it was the end of the world if they skipped exercising once in awhile. For these women, exercise was a "middle priority," which took the pressure off and left more flexibility when other commitments did not allow them to work out.

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The research team conducted eight focus groups among White, Black, and Hispanic women between the ages of 22 and 29, who were either categorized as "high active" or "low active." The low-active group had more distinctive views than the high-active group about exercising. Segar acknowledges these women should learn to think about exercise as fun, rather than a chore.

"We need to re-educate women they can move in ways that will renew instead of exhaust them, and more effectively get the message across that any movement is better than nothing," said Segar.

Using what makes women happy and successful, Segar suggests exercise can and should feel good to do; it should be promoted as a way to connect with important others; reframe it as a way to help women renew and re-energize themselves to excel at their daily roles and goals; and emphasize all movement is valid and worth doing.

The key is to make exercise fun and not daunting. For example, a 2012 study found listening to music can improve performance, and even make us think harder workouts are easier. This is because music helps coordinate our workout, and how we synchronize it.

Other research finds working out with a significant other or a friend can help us stick to our exercise plans. In a 2015 study, people were five times more likely to exercise if their partner did. The theory behind this is that we're social beings, and we're more likely to strive for successful when we feel the presence of a support system that can bring collaboration, and even some friendly competition.

Working out doesn't have to be intense and mundane; changing the way we think about exercise can help us stay healthy, and meet our goals.

Source: Segar M, Taber JM, Patrick H et al. Rethinking physical activity communication: using focus groups to understand women’s goals, values, and beliefs to improve public health. BMC Public Health. 2017.

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