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Entries in Michelle Segar (1)


Taking the Essential Steps to Exercise Adherence

By Patricia Glynn

When it comes to adhering to an exercise regimen, why do so many people fail?

According to Michelle Segar, that’s the million-dollar question—and it’s one she’s spent the last two decades trying to answer.

With a Ph.D. in psychology, and master’s degrees in health behavior/health education (M.P.H.) and in kinesiology (M.S.), Segar is a researcher at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan. She is also resolutely determined to figure out why individuals have such trouble committing to a fitness routine. In tandem, she’s also working to determine exactly what is required to get people moving in the first place—and what will keep them moving over the long haul.

Thus far, she’s made significant progress and has crafted an eight-week coaching/educational curriculum to address what she deems “a serious problem.” Her intervention method, dubbed Essential Steps, is based on her extensive, comprehensive research. It’s suitable for individuals and corporations alike and has transformed many a couch potato. “Participants in my program,” she reveals, “have increased their activity levels by 61%. And that was, on average, sustained well over 10 to 14 months after the program was finished.” Her results are particularly notable given that “most people, as evidenced by multiple studies, usually abandon exercise within the first six months.”

So how does Segar do it? How does she simultaneously overcome objections toward physical activity while also increasing long-term adherence? And what’s her advice to our own industry for helping clubs boost membership and retention? 

Segar’s first recommendation, and a beginning point in her program, involves reframing one’s approach toward physical activity—how one thinks about it and what role it plays in one’s life.

“In our society, exercise is commonly lauded as something you should do for your health, something you should do to lose weight. Both can certainly be powerful incentives for prompting a person to initiate a fitness regimen, but neither lends well to sustainability. Instead, each makes exercising feel more like a chore.” And who, she rightfully ponders, wants to add yet another chore to their day?

In terms of the latter, using exercise as a weight-loss tool, Segar has, in her studies, found this motive actually leads women to be 30 percent less likely to workout. “It’s really a psychological quagmire, which generally succeeds only in making the person feel badly about themselves.” In reality, she explains, engaging in activity with the intention of trying to reshape the body to meet some unrealistic, potentially unattainable standard (i.e., the impossibly svelte bodies she admits she loathes seeing in health club marketing materials) “undermines motivation.” Activity quickly morphs into a dreaded punishment. It becomes a weapon used to fix one’s seemingly misshaped appearance. And the likely ultimate failure to achieve the ideal physique, especially in a quick fashion, only results in immense frustration—and, as you might expect, abandonment of exercise.

As for the medicinal approach, working out to improve health, Segar believes this motive, too, is faulty. “The Exercise is Medicine initiative is, for clinicians, quite compelling. But for the consumer, it’s simply the wrong message. People often won’t take their medications—and taking a pill is obviously much easier than exercise.” Indeed, studies suggest that, depending on disease and treatment plan, compliance in taking prescribed medications is typically less than 50%. “Health,” posits Segar, “is also really a rather esoteric concept. You could exercise and you might see a health payback—or you may not.” In other words, exercising to prevent a disease you might never get is a recipe for failure as far as adherence is concerned. 

Alternatively, what is compelling for the average consumer, says Segar, are motives based on increasing well-being, motives that enhance day-to-day living.

For Segar, who visits the gym to lift weights, being active is fueled by her desire to effectively care for her child. “I have a young son and I want to be strong enough to pick him up, to engage fully with him. I also go to the gym because it makes me feel like I am taking care of myself. Further, I want to retain my strength and functionality as I age. Those are my motivators—they’re persuasive and they thus promote my dedication to working out regularly.”

Beyond helping people release defeating, appearance-based motives, and encouraging them to not think of movement as a pill they should take, Segar also works to conquer what she feels is another primary barrier that keeps people from exercising: lack of time. Of course, the never-enough-time excuse, as Segar observes, is merely a “smokescreen. Consider a person who sustains exercise over the long-term—they don’t have any more time in their day than their non-exercising peers. Again, it all goes back to ensuring that you have the proper motivation. It boils down to finding a compelling reason to engage in physical activity, a reason that leads you to make it a priority in your busy day.”

A shift must happen, she explains. Exercise needs to become something the person wants to do, rather than something they feel they should do. When the exerciser experiences discernable benefits—some sort of payoff—on an ongoing basis, they will, unsurprisingly, find time.

When speaking to those she’s worked with over the years, Segar always inquires about their commitment. What helped them flip the switch? “Again and again, it’s that they’ve redefined what physical activity means to them. They’ve also shifted their expectations—they’ve taken my mantras, ‘Less is often more,’ and ‘Consistency first, then quantity,’ to heart.”

This approach, admonishing an all-or-nothing mindset, is another key component of Segar’s method. “We’ve taught people this gold-standard way of exercising, but life ebbs and flows. We need to encourage more flexibility.”

Expecting people to wake up at 5 a.m. to complete a 60-90-minute rigorous workout is, she points out, unrealistic. It’s pretty much a surefire way to put them off exercising.

“If you can’t do it the way you think you should, or the way you’ve been told you need to, you’ll probably stop. So I teach people to be more flexible. It’s about doing something when you might otherwise have done absolutely nothing. If all you have is 10 minutes, great—then you just do a couple of exercises.” Don’t, she insists, let good be the enemy of great.

As far as our industry is concerned, Segar feels a rebranding is in order. Clubs are mistakenly using the aforementioned, erroneous motivators (i.e. health and weight loss) as the main hooks. “But,” Segar continues, “that’s passé: it’s the old message.” And it’s also not working effectively, she argues. “We’ve misdirected people. Exercise has been lauded as a sort of ‘holy grail’ and people think, ‘This is what’s going to help me achieve everything I’ve ever wanted—a perfect body and perfect health.’ But the problem is that most people won’t achieve the sculpted look that’s being sold to them and, after failing a few times, they’ll quit.

“It’s all counter-intuitive,” she adds. “Instead of recommending exercise as a way to prevent disease, for example, we ought to be emphasizing it as a means to improve daily life. That approach is far more likely to facilitate long-term participation. Just look at the pharmaceutical industry. The commercials, the drug-to-consumer ads, focus on what is most compelling for people: having energy, being able to enjoy time with family. If we really care about adherence, we need to follow suit by delivering similar images and messages. We need to transform the industry so that it’s about daily well-being and happiness. We need to take our promotion out of a medical paradigm, and out of a beauty paradigm, into a better living paradigm. We’re consistently selling exercise as a chore, when what we ought to be doing is selling it as a gift.” 

On her Website, Segar recommends we all be a bit more creative. She encourages the industry, as well as the medical profession and the government, to create “a more emotionally compelling brand of exercise. Create cool branding that hooks into people’s emotions. We’ve turned (exercise) into one more thing to check off our daily to-do list, instead of something we desire to do.” Ultimately, in order to change people’s bodies, we must first change their minds. 

- Patricia Glynn is associate editor of CBI magazine and can be reached at