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The #1 Health Mistake Nobody Knows They Are Making

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

As the holidays approach, two kinds of people generally emerge: Those who throw healthy habits out the window until New Year’s, and those who maintain a healthy lifestyle throughout the season.

Common opinion says that those who continue to eat well and exercise have more discipline than those who don’t. But new research is shedding some much-needed light on why some people have more success when it comes to creating — and maintaining — a healthy lifestyle year round. And I think you’ll be surprised by what it’s telling us

Turns out, health and weight are poor motivators

People have gotten the message loud and clear — a healthier lifestyle is good for health, anti-aging and the waistline. Yet despite valuing these things, most Americans remain challenged when it comes to eating healthy, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight for any period of time.

Michelle Segar, Associate Director of the Sports, Health and Activity Research and Policy (SHARP) Center for Women and Girls at the University of Michigan, has new data showing why the do-it-for-your-health message fails to motivate people. According to her most recent study, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, women who exercised for daily quality of life participated in significantly more physical activity than those who did it to improve their appearance, age healthfully and improve current health.

“It’s easy for people to say they want to age gracefully and maintain good health,” says Segar. “But there is a gap between what they find is important and is compelling enough to maintain in their life.”

Immediate benefits vs. distant goals

It’s important to note that most of the women in the study highly valued their health and aging, but it was those who actually exercised for the immediate benefit of feeling good, not health or healthy aging, that kept exercise a priority over the year.

“Health and weight loss often get individuals to start exercising, but these benefits do not motivate lasting participation for most,” Segar points out.

“When the purpose for exercising is to enhance our lives, it gives exercise what I call ‘goal clout,’ a top priority that successfully competes with our many other daily responsibilities and goals,” Segar explains. “With busy lifestyles and a to-do list that never ends, people only have time to fit in activities that are either urgent or help them better their lives and fulfill other responsibilities.”

Segar says it’s time to rebrand the marketing message for exercise away from the health benefits to ones people will get instantly — improved mood, more energy, better sleep and overall feelings of wellbeing. Who doesn’t want that?

It’s about internal motivation

While Segar’s research focuses mostly on exercise, it can be applied to diet and other healthy behaviors. According to a 2011 study published in Obesity Reviews, people who were counseled for weight loss with motivational interviewing lost significantly more weight than who were counseled using traditional methods.

What is motivational interviewing? It’s a counseling technique that allows people to give voice to their own reasons for change — drowning out the external forces and “shoulds” that makes them naturally resistant. And that is inherently more powerful and motivating.

Bottom line: When the reasons for healthy change are external, coming from someone else, they’re less likely to stick. But if people can recognize and experience the (internal) benefits that matter to them on a daily basis, they’ll be more likely to participate in healthy behaviors all year long. Even during the holidays.

What motivates you to eat well and stay active on a regular basis? Share your tips in the comments below or in our Fitness and Exercise and Diet communities.

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