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How to Motivate Inactive Women to Exercise

Michelle Segar, PhD, author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (AMACOM 2015), believes that when it comes to motivating women to exercise, we’ve been doing it all wrong. Recently, she and a team of researchers asked women about their daily goals and considered whether shifting the messaging surrounding exercise to align with those goals might get more women to move more.

Published in BMC Public Health (2017; 17 [1]), the study involved 40 white, black and Hispanic/Latina women aged 22–49 who were classified as either “high active” or “low active.” In a 90-minute focus group, the women were asked about physical activity (PA) levels, thoughts on exercise, what made them feel happy and successful, what a perfect day looked like for them, and where exercise fell on their list of priorities.

The women described four main sources of happiness: connecting with others, being of service to others, participating in leisure activities and hobbies, and feeling relaxed and free from daily pressures. Contributing to the success of others, accomplishing goals and professional achievement were associated with feelings of success. Views on physical activity were more varied.

“The ‘low active’ participants suggested that their beliefs, feelings, experiences and definitions of physical activity were in conflict with their proximal goals, values and priorities, also undermining their psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness,” the researchers said.

More specifically, these less-active participants felt that exercise was selfish and took time away from their families, created stress in their lives and required too much commitment. They also linked exercise with intense effort, which conflicted with their desire to feel relaxed.
The “high active” women tended to hold the opposite points of view.

This information offers valuable insight into how to motivate women to exercise more, according to Segar and colleagues. They suggested incorporating the following elements into the messages that health, fitness and wellness professionals put out to the public:

  • Promote PA as a way to connect with others.
  • Reframe PA as congruent with women’s roles and responsibilities.
  • Emphasize PA as a way to generate positive affect.
  • More effectively communicate a broad continuum of physical activity.

“PA messages influence women’s perceptions about what PA means and the role it plays in their lives,” say the researchers. “Therefore, rather than emphasize the goals public health professionals value, messages should align PA with the experiences, goals and priorities that women care most about in order to get their attention in the crowded communications environment and make PA more relevant, pleasurable and easier to integrate into their daily lives.”

For more discussion on how to motivate people to move more, read the article “Embracing the Joy of Movement” in the February 2017 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

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