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Dr. Michelle Segar

Women’s fitness journeys are often fueled by weight loss objectives, but is this really a sustainable and healthy mindset? In this episode, we’re joined by Michelle Segar, esteemed health researcher and author of The Joy Choice. Together we uncover a new, empowering perspective on women’s health and wellness that fosters lasting change.

In this episode, we explore the challenges women face when approaching fitness, and discuss the pitfalls of a weight-loss focused mindset. Michelle shares her insights on how to shift perspectives and embrace exercise as a sustainable lifestyle choice, rather than a chore.

Don’t miss this great episode! We also dig into:

  • The surprising importance of cultivating a flexible mindset in healthy eating and exercise
  • The power of shifting focus from weight loss to overall well-being
  • Why optimistic exercise strategies simply don’t work for most busy women
  • The reasons not sharing more inclusive content does a major disservice to moms
  • What’s needed to persuade women to transform exercise from chore to self-care

About our guest: Dr. Michelle Segar is an American behavioral sustainability scientist, author, and speaker. She is known for her research on how to create autonomous and sustained motivation for self-care behaviors (e.g., exercise, sleep, eating). She’s the author of two books, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, and The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise.

Episode 30: Dr. Michelle Segar Transcript

Danielle Wiley: Welcome to The Art of Sway, the podcast that uncovers the power of influence and its impact on all areas of our lives. I’m your host, Danielle Wiley. Each week we’ll explore the many facets of influence through candid conversations with industry insiders, from brand marketers to social workers, educators, leaders, and more. Let’s dive in.

Danielle Wiley: Dr. Michelle Segar is an award-winning researcher at the University of Michigan and Health Coach with almost 30 years studying how to help people adopt self-care behaviors like exercise in ways that can survive the complexity and unpredictability of the real world. Since 1994, she has been designing, evaluating and training professionals in methods that help people transform their mindsets about healthy behaviors so they can stick with them. Her work is being scaled to boost patient and population health, employee wellbeing and gym membership retention. Her new book, The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise was named one of the best health books experts read by 2022 in the Washington Post and was a Next Big Idea Club nominee last year.

Danielle Wiley: It introduces a practical, science-based system to break down all or nothing thinking and cultivate the flexible and tactical decision making that supports sustaining exercise and healthy eating within the complexities of daily life. Michelle Segar is a dear friend of mine, we met almost 30 years ago when I first lived in Ann Arbor. Her research on sustainable behavior change has always fascinated me and I am thrilled to be able to share it with all of you. Enjoy. Well, hi. Welcome to the podcast.

Michelle Segar: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah, it’s so good. I mean, we get to talk not as much as I would like, but pretty much all the time. Personally, it’s nice to have a opportunity to talk to you professionally and have chatting with you as part of my Google Calendar.

Michelle Segar: Oh, yeah.

Danielle Wiley: Listeners heard your brief bio when I introduced you, but I think it would be great if you could give just a little intro to your journey. I know your journey involved many years of school, I feel like at the U of M, you might have the record for years.

Michelle Segar: I might. Well, thanks for having me on.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah.

Michelle Segar: So I got interested in this topic of how do you help people create sustainable, what I call self-care behaviors with a focus on physical activity because of a really unexpected, shocking finding that happened when I was doing my Master’s Degree in Kinesiology back in 1993, 1994. Do you want me to tell you what that was?

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. Because I love this story and I haven’t heard it from you since, I mean, this is-

Michelle Segar: The ’90s.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah, I remember taking, well, you’ll talk about it, but I took your fitting and fitness workshop, I think upstairs at Zingerman’s you had a space and I heard your story then, but I’m sure it’s even more refined and delightful now, so share it.

Michelle Segar: And I forgot actually that I had done it. I mean, I believe I even served brownies maybe at the opening one.

Danielle Wiley: I hope you did.

Michelle Segar: I know. So we were looking to see if cancer survivors who exercised compared to a group of cancer survivors that didn’t exercise would improve and there’s some psychological outcomes like depression and anxiety. And the thing that I just want to insert here is that these weren’t active patients for the most part, these were people who were about four and a half years after treatment, living normal lives. And we found that exercise did significantly reduce these symptoms. But what we discovered in focus groups about three months after our study, that while the participants benefited in a significant way from exercise, once their commitment to us and our research ended, so did their commitment to exercise. And as a youngster at that time, not a 50 plus woman, which is why we’re here talking today, I was just shocked. Why would people stop exercising given the benefits?

Michelle Segar: And so I asked, as this naive 20 something, why? And they said, “Oh my gosh, Michelle, do you have all day? I have this and that and the other to do. I have to work, I have a family, I have aging parents.” And I thought if people who have faced a life-threatening illness didn’t have the mindset and skillset to sustain physical activity beyond our research, then we have a real problem in society. And I had this true, real light bulb went off in my brain, literally the image, and I thought, “This is my problem and I’m going to solve it.” And so everything since that time, almost 30 years ago, has been in service of conducting my own academic research, developing behavior change systems, which is what you were talking about earlier and we can talk about that, and studying broadly science across topics to understand where is the convergence around science? Because there’s thousands of theories in all these different fields, but where is there convergence? And then how can we leverage that to create science-based messaging and methods that can actually result in sustainable change?

Danielle Wiley: And I mean, there’s so much chatter about this, I know we’ve talked about it. I’m on all these fitness Facebook groups and talk to people a lot about this just because I’m into it personally. But people talking about Atomic Habits, force yourself to do something for three weeks or whatever it is, suddenly boom, it’s easy and there’s no problem. And you’ve gone on the record or I don’t know, you told me that you don’t really follow that whole line of thinking.

Michelle Segar: Right. And where I’m coming from is a lot of… So there’s two things. One is that a lot of research that gets published is conducted in college students. When it comes to sustaining any kind of complex behavior long term, college students in general, this is a general statement, don’t have the same number of responsibilities in the same level of life domain. So how is research that’s conducted on a pri… Now, I’m making a huge generalization here, so I just want to acknowledge that. But how is research conducted over a day or a week among college students who maybe have to go to class? Maybe some people have jobs, but they probably, at least the average college student doesn’t have kids, they may not have a full-time job outside. So how does it translate into busy parents who are juggling kids and pets and full-time jobs and volunteering at their school and maybe their place of worship? And so that’s one of the challenges.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. I mean, I’m just thinking this morning I was going to try to work out, I had to get the house in order because our cleaning lady was coming and then discovered our water softener had broke and so I had to rewash every dish from the dishwasher with vinegar by hand and then I had to be at work. I didn’t have time, my life got in the way of working out this morning.

Michelle Segar: Bingo. That’s exactly what we’re talking about. The other thing that is really interesting is that… And I just read a habit study by one of the leading habit researchers where they were looking to see if habit formation equally predicted sport activities and exercise activities. And they studied active people, they studied athletes and they studied people who are physically active. And there’s a huge difference between people who have figured out how to successfully do it, in the last two to five decades, there’s been a very limited, very specific way of promoting exercise. And about 20% of the population has been successful with that approach. So the problem is that about 80%, I’m rounding numbers here, hasn’t. And so to study the people who’ve been successful with an approach as a way to get clues into those who have been unsuccessful, I have found is actually an illogical thing to do. It’s logical, but it actually is misguided.

Danielle Wiley: Well, it’s not realistic

Michelle Segar: It’s not realistic because the people who have not been successful, again, the vast majority of the population, and not just one time not successful, we’re talking about dozens and dozens and dozens of times, there’s a core difference between these two groups. And to study the successful group to get hints, there might be some overlap, but in general, we have to look at completely different paradigms to attract, to help the people who have not been successful become successful. And it’s a different formula.

Danielle Wiley: So just to take a step back and just so you study mostly, not necessarily just for women, but I feel like a lot of the studies that you’ve done are specific to women, correct?

Michelle Segar: My early work was 100% focused on women. That’s less so true now, but gender is an area that I’m very interested in. And yeah, so you can ask me questions about women.

Danielle Wiley: Okay, we’ll focus on the women because we’ll just be selfish about it. So I’m just curious in general, just to take it back to the sphere of influence because that’s what we talk about here. In general, what influences women when it comes to fitness and nutrition? Where do you see women getting their ideas on what they should do and how they should do it? Both negative and positive, I guess.

Michelle Segar: Right. And that’s such a relevant question. People get their ideas on social media, they get their ideas in magazines, from their friends, from their family, from the gym that they may have gone to. But here’s the challenge, what might bring a woman to fitness? And I can tell you what I’ve seen typically brings women to fitness is a desire to lose weight and change their body in some way. And there’s a huge problem with that. And the problem is that those reasons or whys for exercising are actually among the least motivating long term. So it might bring us to the table, but unfortunately that’s not what research shows is actually going to drive lasting change. So there’s this disconnect.

Danielle Wiley: So what does? Because in the studies you did when you first started out in the ’90s, that was a life or death situation and that didn’t work either.

Michelle Segar: Well, I’m just going to answer the bigger question, but first specifically say, I discovered in my subsequent research something that floored me, stunned me, actually concerned me, and that is that health was not an effective motivator. So I thought, “Oh my gosh, if people’s health isn’t a motivator.” And we did see that with the survivors, but I thought more globally it would be. And health doesn’t have the same contamination as weight loss or weight for regular exercise. But because it has to do with the future reward may or may not ever see, it’s not really reinforcing. Because human beings are more motivated, this is from behavioral economics, by experiences that we’re going to immediately have. And so not only is health either disease prevention or managing something that’s going on potentially in the future, you may never see results. And we also know at this point, and I’m sure your savvy listeners probably already know this, that physical activity is actually very ineffective at producing weight loss. It’s a helpful weight maintenance strategy.

Michelle Segar: So if you exercise because you’re trying to lose weight, it’s not going to contribute. And as a behavior change systems designer, I have found that trying to exercise and also changing your eating in ways that potentially could influence your weight, they compete with each other because you’re trying to learn how to change your decision making, profound decision making, challenging decision making with two different behaviors at the same time. And again, think about yourself this morning, you were just thinking about exercise, but what if you were also trying to overhaul your diet at the same time you’re trying to exercise three to five times a week? And this thing happened, everything goes out the window and you feel like a failure.

Michelle Segar: So that’s why starting two things at the same time might not be optimal for busy women. Number one and number two. Exercise isn’t going to produce weight loss for most people. It also turns exercise into a should and it makes it feel like a chore. And if you are trying to fit, and I’m actually just about to post a blog on Psychology Today about this very topic, most of us, if we’re going to exercise, we do it in our, “Leisure time.” And if exercise feels like a chore, who’s going to pick that as a leisure activity for days and months and years? So there’s many disconnects between trying to exercise for losing weight and why is it actually not going to work long term?

Danielle Wiley: I mean, this is the big question, your whole life work. So how do we create sustainable changes that can survive my dishwasher freaking out on me this morning?

Michelle Segar: Sure. Well, there are drivers that we have to be hooked into. And the drivers for physical activity, for example, and there’s beginning to be research about this for eating too, is how it makes us feel immediately. So when we learn that physical activity helps us have a sense of accomplishment, helps us feel more energized, boosts our mood, that’s an immediate, we’re immediately gratified from that experience and that’s the type of reward that behavioral economics and other research, especially research on physical activity shows leads to sustainable change. But it’s more than just having a positive experience because I love going to the movies, that’s a positive experience for me, but I don’t prioritize going to the movies. And so we have to help people understand that when they feel better globally from these immediate benefits, that it helps us be our best in our work as a consultant, a podcaster or a mom, whatever it is.

Michelle Segar: And then that’s the driver that we need to get into place. But the second piece of it, which is what I wrote about in The Joy Choice, we have to learn that it doesn’t have to be perfect and we can learn how to support our cognition when we come to those points. Maybe today, you absolutely didn’t have time to do anything with all that dishwashing you had to do before you started work, but in other circumstances, maybe you would’ve had five or seven minutes to do something. And what especially busy moms need to learn how to do is that successful physical activity isn’t hitting a bullseye every time, it’s actually just moving consistently. And whether it’s two minutes of moving or 45 minutes of moving, when you know that something is better than nothing, and that’s actually the secret sauce for success for most people, you give yourself permission to pick, of course, The Joy Choice or The Perfect Imperfect Option because that is all we can do. If we can’t do it all and the only alternative is nothing, well, then we failed before we stepped out the door.

Danielle Wiley: Right. At Sway Group, we use Slack for chatting with each other and we have a Slack channel for everyone who does Peloton workouts. And we’ve had conversations about this before because they have workouts as short as five minutes, which is so nice. Not everything has to be an hour or 45 minutes to be able to do just a quick five-minute hit cardio or five minute dance something or even just a five-minute stretch or whatever it is. To just be able to pick the one thing that you can manage to squeeze in when everything is crazy is great.

Michelle Segar: Brilliant. And I know other companies have done shorter things, I haven’t heard five minutes before, but that’s exactly the secret to success and to helping more people. That’s how they’re going to increase their membership is when people understand that there are options and on any given day, it’s doing something instead of nothing. And it’s so not a sexy message. “Everything counts, do something instead of nothing.” So unsexy, but it truly is the recipe for the majority of people. And because as a society, that hasn’t been the formula, the formula has been commitment and do it right and get to the gym and do it for 40 minutes. That has worked for a handful of people, form an automatic habit that you don’t have to think about. That has worked for some people, but it’s the minority of the population. And the flip side is that when you think about any life area that we live, whether we’re talking about being parents or partners or our jobs, we don’t expect to be perfect. When we mess up, we don’t kick our kids out of the house. When we mess up as parents, we don’t-

Danielle Wiley: I think we might want to.

Michelle Segar: Well, we don’t dump our friends when they have to change their appointment with us or can meet with us for a shorter time. We bend with the wind, but we haven’t learned to have that same flexible mindset when it comes to healthy eating and exercise. And that’s why I believe most people have been unsuccessful to date.

Danielle Wiley: That’s one of the things. I mean, it’s crazy because there’s so much, I feel like my brain is filled with all sorts of things that aren’t useful at all. But I do remember a lot from the workshop I took with you in the ’90s and one of them was that, yes, there’s a recommended amount of time to exercise per week, but the exercise that you do within a day doesn’t have to be one solid chunk. If it’s 20 minutes, let’s say, or whatever, it could be five minutes times four, right? There’s no difference.

Michelle Segar: Yes. And since that time, in 2018 in the United States, there was a new physical activity recommendation that removed any duration whatsoever. In 2020, the World Health Organization removed any criterion of duration whatsoever. So when I taught you that in the ’90s, it actually wasn’t officially true, but it was logically the right thing to do. But five years ago when that recommendation came out and all the experts were on talk shows and doing podcast interviews, absolutely everyone was saying that the single most exciting thing that came out of the new recommendation was the fact that they removed that 10 minute bout duration that used to exist. That, by the way, wasn’t even based on data in the way that everyone thought it was. So yes, you’re right.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. And I was just talking about this with the doctor the other day because I went for my physical and I was talking about how, because I’m perimenopausal now, I’ve read that spurts of sprint training are really good for my body. And she was saying, “Yes, exactly. 45 minutes to an hour of extended exertion is actually really not good for your body at all.” And to do quick bursts of intense activity is better.

Michelle Segar: I don’t know the physiological research of this. As soon as I sit down to dinner with my husband tonight who does study this on a physiological level, I’ll ask him and I’ll get back to you about that.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. Well, I mean, I’m learning. I feel like I’m living in this whole other body recently, so I’ve been reading everything I can to try to get a handle on all of it. As you know, we’ve talked about this. So speaking of generations and how bodies change and our brains change, one of the things that you had mentioned that we could talk about were the generational changes that you see. And you talked about the difference between college aged and midlife women. And that was especially interesting to me as midlife sounds better than middle-aged, which makes it sound like my mom beyond that. But because I’m midlife and my daughter’s college aged, that was very interesting to me.

Michelle Segar: Sure. Well, it is interesting to think about differences. What I’ve seen is that college aged students now, this cohort, who knows what’s going to happen in 10 or 20 years? But the younger folks, if you will, there’s a greater sense of entitlement for self-care and for wellbeing. And I think they talk about that for the millennials too. I think that a sense of wellbeing and wanting to do activities and that sort of thing. When I started studying women in midlife, there was a complete lack of entitlement. Again, going back to the cancer survivors where other things are more important, people felt guilty and selfish. And to some extent, I think parents still carry that guilt a little bit and maybe even men do too. I mean, I know men do too. That was traditionally considered a long time ago, a woman’s specific thing.

Michelle Segar: But I’ve heard plenty of men talk about guilt when they prioritize their own self-care although I do think women still have a greater difficulty. But if we’re just going to talk about the cohorts, I have found, and this might be because after Title IX, when girls’ sports became a normative thing, not that the playing fields are equal in any way when it comes to sport resources, but before Title IX girls sports was an artifact in a way and it’s just become much more integrated. And so I think college females are better in touch with their bodies as activity machines than our generation was.

Danielle Wiley: And what I see is they’re just more self-aware with everything in terms of identifying feelings and setting boundaries and, “This is my no time and I need this time and I’m going to take this time.” And that is so foreign to me and my generation, it feels unnatural and scary to say that.

Michelle Segar: And the other interesting thing that I saw research pretty consistently when you asked people, and this was across age cohorts, why they exercised, across the board, my own research found that 75% of participants consistently talked about health or weight. Of course, the two things we know that don’t drive lasting exercise behavior for the most part in general. During COVID, I think there was an industry study that showed that mental health and how people felt was the most dominant motive mentioned. And again, I’m not sure if these are active individuals or not regularly active, but that’s a sea change and that’s a very exciting one because that’s what is going to drive sustainability for more people.

Michelle Segar: So being aware of our boundaries and being aware of whether it’s not getting enough sleep at night, unplugging so that we can get sleep or the amount that we each need to feel our best every day or moving our bodies or meditating or praying or whatever it is, if we’re not aware of what we need, then we can’t be in charge of setting the boundaries or making the plans to do those things. So that is a really positive thing as long as it doesn’t encroach too much into a sense of entitlement that gets in the way of other things.

Danielle Wiley: Right. Well, I frequently say that Gen Z is going to save us all. I mean, there’s so much about that generation that’s just delightful and amazing and I don’t think this aspect of it gets talked about a lot. We talk about politics and workplace dynamics and how they’re changing that, but just this creating self-boundaries and understanding what’s important to your body and to your mental health and insisting on space for that is something that’s so great for us to learn from them.

Michelle Segar: Oh my gosh, it’s crucial. It’s crucial to health, it’s crucial to happiness, absolutely. We can talk about it on this population level and then we can go back to ourselves and say, gosh, when I personally don’t get enough sleep at night, I feel terrible and I am not a happy person and I can be really mean to my husband and son and I don’t enjoy the daily activities work related that I would typically enjoy. And if I didn’t know that about myself and really worked hard to get the sleep I need, then I would not have a very happy life. And so if people aren’t aware of that… And I think even though maybe Gen Z does that and society is catching up so that we respect that human beings are physiological creatures that have certain regeneration and renewal needs.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. I mean, I invited you on because you’re very smart and have a lot of wonderful things to share with the audience. But another reason you were invited on for season three is because you’re a woman age 50 plus and we are celebrating that this season in honor of, I’m taking the opportunity to celebrate myself for turning 50 this year. So as part of that, we’re asking all the guests this season to share with us a woman who has really influenced them in their life, career, whatever sphere you want to share, but just giving a shout-out to a woman in your life.

Michelle Segar: Oh, that’s great. Wow. Gosh, someone? Do they have to be alive?

Danielle Wiley: No.

Michelle Segar: Okay.

Danielle Wiley: Mine’s not.

Michelle Segar: Someone in my life who is no longer on this earth, Joan Schaffer. She really taught me the value of believing in yourself and putting your neck out and really going for it. That is something that has been a key part, I guess, of how I’ve gone about carving my own career path, just following my own interests and creating a career path that really fits the definition that I have of success and which has included explicitly rejecting paths that really are more prevalent in my field. So she’s someone who I think taught me to go about living that way.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. I love it. Well, thank you so much for sharing that and for coming on. Again, I learned some of this back in the ’90s, it was interesting to hear what’s changed, what hasn’t changed. And I share your research a lot with people when I’m just chatting with them, so it was great to be able to hear it directly from you and now I have somewhere to point them. Obviously you have tons of stuff online too, so we’ll share out your socials. Do you want to tell people where they can find you? We’ll put it in the blog post too.

Michelle Segar: Sure. Well, first of all, thank you. And I’m so glad having that juxtaposition of 1990s and now, wow. I have a website,, if these ideas resonated with people, I have a newsletter that I send out once a month and I’m learning that I am loving doing this once a month. So that’s a way to connect with me. I’m @MichelleSegar on Twitter, I have a LinkedIn profile, so people can find me. And as you know, my new book is called The Joy Choice and they can learn more about that on my website too.

Danielle Wiley: Awesome. And I was very honored to be thanked in the forward. It was forward or somewhere in there. I got thanked for chatting with you.

Michelle Segar: Anyone who I spoke to that helped me think about this content, I wanted to thank because someone might write a book, but you learned from other people. And so yes, you’re welcome. And thank you.

Danielle Wiley: Well, this was great. Thank you so much.

Michelle Segar: Thanks.

Danielle Wiley: Thank you for listening. Don’t forget to share and subscribe. Please check back next Monday for a new episode featuring marketing conversations through the lens of influence. I am your host, Danielle Wiley, and this is The Art of Sway.