Skip to main content


  • Exercise may be a foundational pillar to your overall health, but you may find it a challenge to include in your daily regimen, citing a lack of time, lack of motivation and high expectations for a workout program
  • Researchers have found women who are highly active have framed their exercise program such that it helps them achieve their goals of feeling successful and happy
  • Incorporating a change of perspective and intrinsic motivators may help you use exercise to reduce anxiety, back pain and improve your sex drive

Exercise is one of the foundational pillars to your overall health. However, while high intensity interval training (HIIT) may give you the most bang for the time you spend exercising, if you are new to exercise, HIIT may not be the best place to start.

Exercise programs offer you a long list of benefits to your overall physical and mental health, including improving muscle strength and flexibility and improving cognitive skills. As you grow older, these benefits take on greater importance, as after age 40 your muscle mass begins to gradually decline.

This loss of muscle mass may lead to changes in your mobility, strength and ability to live independently later in life, as well as a reduction in metabolic and hormone function, resulting in health conditions such as obesity and diabetes. Without an exercise program to slow muscle loss you may lose an average of nearly 7 pounds of muscle per decade.1 It is important to note that this type of muscle loss is not inevitable and may be slowed or stopped with exercise.

Unfortunately, many come up with a list of reasons for why an exercise program will not fit into their daily or weekly schedule. A recent study in BMC Public Health suggests you may be able to learn to enjoy exercise by changing your perspective on the activity and your expectations of the results.

Study Reveals Goals May Predict Your Preference for Exercise

The study’s lead author, Michelle Segar, Ph.D., director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center, is a behavioral sustainability scientist and the author of “No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.” Her focus over the last years has been studying the reasons people do and do not exercise, and what motivates them to get and stay physically fit.2

In this recent study, Segar and colleagues delved into the reasons women feel successful and happy, in order to correlate their responses with how they felt about their current level of fitness and exercise. They questioned 40 women between ages 22 and 49, and analyzed their responses about exercise to determine how their feelings may either foster or hinder the desire to exercise.

Overall, the participants valued their ability to connect with others, accomplish the goals they set and feel relaxed while doing leisure activities.3 The results of the analysis found those who were not currently highly active had beliefs, feelings, experiences and definitions of physical activity that conflicted with their goals and priorities.4

In other words, the women who were inactive saw exercise as counterproductive to their goals. These women also had a different view of what “exercise” entailed and how it would feel. In order to have value, they believed the form of exercise must produce copious amounts of sweat, conflicting with how they wanted to relax during their free time.

These women also felt working out took too much time and placed more pressure on their schedule, often leaving them feeling as if they failed. The group of highly active women had the opposite belief of how exercise fit into their goals for relaxing, achieving success and connecting with others. Segar theorizes that inactive women may want to develop a shift in their mindset to achieve their goals, saying:

“These women feel alienated by exercise, or feel that they’ve failed when they tried it in the past. They have a very narrow definition of what exercise should look like.”

Do You Experience These Challenges?

Starting an exercise program often presents challenges that can keep you from ever getting going. Some of the more common reasons people give for not starting or consistently maintaining a workout program are:5,6,7

Desire to avoid discomfort — Exercise may be perceived as uncomfortable as compared to your typical activities. Some of those discomforts may include being hot, getting tired, being out of breath or getting dirty.
Lack of time — Many have filled every waking minute of their day, and some even encroach on their sleeping hours to get everything done. It may feel like you just don’t have enough time in your day to add one more thing.
Lack of motivation — Another way of seeing motivation is mental energy. After looking forward to a full day at work or parenting, it may be challenging to muster the additional mental energy needed to do something “good for you.”
Hate to exercise — You may have had a bad experience as a child or young adult or you may have preconceived ideas about what exercise is and how you’ll feel.
Excessively high expectations — The physical benefits of exercise are not instantly apparent, even though the mental and emotional benefits are experienced almost immediately. If your expectation is immediate weight loss or rock hard abs, you’ll likely feel disappointed and that you’ve failed.
Lack of access — Some feel exercise must be done with fancy equipment at home, at a gym or with a personal trainer — none of which you may feel you can afford.
Being out of shape — Many want to exercise but feel they should be in shape first. Although a bit ironic, this may result in feelings of inadequacy or being judged by others.
Bored, bored, bored — Maybe you’ve tried exercising before and got bored within minutes. Exercise doesn’t have to boring — there are some types of exercise you’ll find interesting and fun if you just try.
Overwhelmed — Do you get overwhelmed with where and how to start exercising? Equipment, gyms, clothing, rules and options may make it difficult to choose and get started.

It’s All in How You Frame It

The challenge that appeared to stop most of the inactive women in the study was what they thought about exercise and how it fit into their perspective on leisure and relaxation. Segar suggests this may result from a definition of decades of messages about fitness from companies and older studies. The idea that the only type of exercise worthwhile is high-intensity, sweat-generating movement is not true. Segar comments:8

“The new recommendations for physical activity really open the door for people to pretty much do anything that works for them.”

While the type of exercise you choose is personal, the objective is to do something that raises your heart and breathing rate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention9 and the World Health Organization,10 adults who get at least 150 minutes each week of moderate-intensity exercise will experience substantial benefits, especially over those who don’t exercise at all.

Additional benefits may be experienced from more time or more intense exercise, but this is a starting point for many who currently lead sedentary lives.

How you think about exercise, or how you frame the idea, may help you change your perspective and enjoy your chosen activities. The process of reframing an idea is an active and dynamic process occurring every day in your brain.11 In fact, advertisers use it to persuade you to purchase products, and you use it to construct the meaning behind your decisions.

Presenting information in a different light allows you to frame the information in such a way that you may justify the decisions you make. For instance, would you be interested in an invention that would increase your wealth, make you more efficient and productive and make your life more fun? In return, 40,000 people die every year. It doesn’t sound like a good deal, but you’ve already taken it since the invention is your car. It’s all in your perspective.

Segar suggest that instead of thinking of exercise as an alternative to your free time, socializing with friends or achieving your goals, you change your perspective so exercise is a way of making your desires happen.

Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation

One of the top reasons people list for starting a workout routine is to lose weight. This is an extrinsic motivating factor. Most have a firm grasp on the health reasons they may want to start an exercise program:

  • Lower risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes
  • Lower risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia
  • Lower risk of some cancers, arthritis and osteoporosis

However, while these reasons may be enough to get you to exercise once or twice, they are long-term goals that won’t continue to feed your motivation and boost your mental energy to exercise. Instead, it’s important to recognize the intrinsic benefits you experience with most types of exercise.12

Theories of behavior have demonstrated that your immediate experience will often overshadow any future anticipated reward.13 In other words, you’ll find it difficult to do something uncomfortable if the reward you earn is something you’ll experience later. Dan Ariely, Ph.D., professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, has spent years clarifying what you need to use to start and stay persistent in a workout routine.14

Reframe Your Intrinsic Motivators

Ariely studied the effect of motivation and performance in the workplace, demonstrating that in both recreational and workplace situations, you are more motivated by intrinsic values of what is being created rather than any extrinsic benefits you experience. In other words, the hardest part about starting is getting started.

During the planning process you anticipate how you may feel, what you may experience and how much you don’t want to do it, producing negative feelings. However, in the immediate moment, exercise will increase the release of hormones that boost your mood, emotions and increase your motivation.

A recent analysis of six studies demonstrated similar results in participants who placed greater value on their internal feelings while exercising, rather than on the benefits they may experience later.15 As a result, during an activity, participants cared more about the current activity than about past or future work.

Researchers found that intrinsic incentives improved the experience during an action, while extrinsic incentives had the same value during and after an activity. By reframing exercise, and placing greater value on the immediate experience of having fun and enjoying the hormonal release that reduces stress and boosts mood, you may find exercising becomes fun.

This altered perspective was what Segar found in her participants who enjoyed a highly active lifestyle. By putting exercise on your daily “to-do list” and just doing it, you may begin to experience the immediate mental and emotional boost that will go a long way toward increasing your motivation to continue.

Movement or Exercise?

However slight, there is a difference between movement and exercise. Both are on a continuum that starts with sleeping and ends with anaerobic exercise, or intense movement that may be achieved for only short periods of time. Your body was designed for movement and activity. Movement is a low-intensity form of interrupted sitting or sleeping, while exercise is a moderate or high-intensity form. Both are necessary for your good health.

Depending upon your current level of fitness, a walk may be a moderate form of exercise or it may be a form of low-intensity movement. Both are important, but only you can determine the activity that is exercise and the one that is movement for your individual situation.

Daily Hacks Using Exercise

Exercise is also a cost-effective and low-risk strategy to use for several challenges you may face during your daily routines. Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University Prevention Research Center, commented on the importance of exercise to both preventing disease and helping you to address daily health challenges, saying:16

“When it comes to preventing health problems, exercise is one of the best medicines we have.”

Exercise doesn’t have to send you into a lather of sweat in order to help alleviate some of the stress you experience each day. While walking briskly is not an intense exercise activity, it is an easy way to squeeze in movement and raise your heart rate during the day. Segar encourages people to get creative with their movement throughout the day, saying:17

“If you liked biking as a kid, rent a bike and see if it still feels good. Play tag with your kids, take a dance class or even just climb the stairs a few extra times while you’re doing chores around the house.”

Taking a walk at lunch, walking after dinner, and getting up and moving at least every 10 to 15 minutes at work are other ways of incorporating movement into your day. You may find more activity will also address physical and mental health conditions that are commonly experienced.18

Anxiety — Exercise increases the release of mood stabilizing neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine.19 Studies also demonstrate the effect exercise has on buffering stress during and after exercise.20,21 In the long run, people who exercise consistently report experiencing less stress and anxiety.
Midday nap — Exercise improves your sleep quality at night and reduces the potential you’ll want a nap in the afternoon. Brad Cardinal, co-director of the sport and exercise psychology program at Oregon State University, says:22

“Exercisers fall asleep faster, suffer fewer middle-of-the-night wake-ups and have a reduced risk of sleep disorders.

We aren’t sure why activity primes your body for sleep so well, but it’s likely a combination of factors, including lowering your core body temperature, increasing the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin and supporting a biological need to restore energy levels and repair cells and tissues when you sleep.”

Sex drive — Regular workouts help you to increase circulation and increase the release of endorphins in your body.23 This helps reduce stress and increases your self-esteem, all important factors to boosting your desire.
Back pain — Supporting muscles of your lower and upper back become weaker as you age and without use. This may lead to back pain, discomfort and trouble walking or sitting. Strength training exercises that focus on your core abdominal and back muscles help to reduce this discomfort.
Cravings — Food and sweet cravings are common, and easily crushed with a 15-minute brisk walk. Your brain is craving dopamine that you interpret as a food craving. You can give your brain the dopamine without spiking your glucose and insulin levels with a short burst of activity.
Immune system — Exercise is a natural immune system supporter.24 Other lifestyle strategies that help support your immune system include not smoking, getting eight hours of quality sleep and eating a nutritionally balanced diet high in healthy fats and low in net carbohydrates.
Hot flashes — During menopause and the years leading up to it, 80 percent of women will experience hot flashes.25 Exercise helps reduce stress and anxiety, both of which may increase your sensitivity to the symptoms and bring on hot flashes at a younger age.