As a kinesiology graduate student, Michelle Segar (‘88, M.S. ‘95, M.P.H. ‘97, Ph.D. ‘06), conducted her master’s thesis to test the theory that exercise would decrease anxiety and depression among cancer survivors. The study found that it did, and after it ended researchers called participants back to follow up. “The participants sat around talking about how great exercise was, how good it was for them, how much better they felt when they exercised,” Segar recalls. “And how almost none of them were still doing it.”

The participants gave the usual excuses: They had work. They had errands, spouses, children to raise, houses to fix. It wasn’t an issue of being cancer survivors, says Segar, it was an issue of being busy adults who’d been socialized to rank their responsibilities in a particular way. “I was floored,” she recalls. “Even people who had faced a life-threatening illness were not prioritizing their own self care by being physically active. And in that moment I decided this was the problem I wanted to solve.”

Her solution, laid out in her recently published book, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, draws from a variety of disciplines she studied at U-M, including psychology, sociology, women’s studies, kinesiology, and public health. It falls somewhere in the space bounded by academics, health care, education, and self-help. “The ideas and science in No Sweat are relevant everywhere because creating sustainable behavior change is a top priority everywhere, especially with the universal need to reduce health care costs.”

According to Segar, the “wrong why,” such as losing 60 pounds, generally leads to failure because it's something you feel you should do—and it often comes from someone else, like your doctor or the cover of a magazine. The “right why” stems from the payoff you feel directly, such as feeling energized or connecting with friends.

Learning How to Learn

In designing her sustainable behavior change program, Segar encountered plenty of challenges of her own, and she credits her creative problem-solving skills to her time at LSA’s Residential College (RC). As a student, Segar recalls, when she encountered a complex problem that she didn’t understand, she would learn what she needed by taking a certain class, studying with different faculty, or interpreting different types of data.

“In the RC, I was encouraged to design an education that reflected who I am,” she says. “I learned to identify what I needed to learn in order to know what I wanted to know.”

Such experiences affirmed her interdisciplinary approach to investigating behavior change. Lasting solutions must align with people’s competing goals and work within the cultures, norms and pressures where they live and work, she says. They can’t treat people as if they live in a vacuum.

Everything Counts

As director of U-M’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center (SHARP), which is housed within U-M’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Segar investigates ways to help people change their behavior so they stick with it.

Segar’s program can be distilled into the acronym MAPS. The first two concepts—Meaning and Awareness—help people understand the hidden reasons they don’t stay motivated. Permission, the third part, helps people learn to prioritize their own well-being. The final concept, Strategy, provides practical steps that help people negotiate their obligations and continue the changes they’ve started.

Being aware of the meanings you personally associate with an activity helps you understand your motivation to do it—or to not do it, she says. If going for a run reminds you of the basketball coach who forced you to do laps for talking during practice, you’re more likely to dread lacing up your shoes than if you associate taking a run with uninterrupted time to gab with your best friend. Having such awareness is a key step toward eventually giving yourself permission to prioritize your own self-care, Segar says.

People think taking the time to exercise is a luxury until they understand the powerful revitalization role it can play in their daily lives, Segar says. When people adopt a behavior that helps them feel and be their best, it becomes a part of who they are. They internalize it and it helps them live better, which gets reinforced neurologically.

“If you take care of yourself, you’re better able to do what matters most to you, such as being more patient with your kids,” she says. “Once people see that consistent self-care helps them succeed at what matters most, they are hooked.”

Illustrations by David Speranza