in: Character, Habits, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #575: Counterintuitive Advice on Making Exercise a Sustainable Habit

It’s a new year and like many people, you may have set a goal to exercise more regularly. But like most people, you’ve set this goal before only to give up on it after only a few weeks. 

Why is it so hard to make exercise a habit? And what can you do to make it stick?

My guest today argues that more willpower and discipline isn’t the answer. Instead, you need to completely change the way you think about exercise. 

Her name is Michelle Segar, and she’s a behavioral scientist and the author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. We begin our conversation discussing Michelle’s counterintuitive finding that common reasons for exercising like losing weight or even getting healthier aren’t effective motivations. And she shares research on how our ideas of what exercise should look like, as well as the propensity towards an all-or-nothing mindset, also set us up for failure. We then discuss why sheer discipline isn’t very effective for staying on track either, and why exercise needs to have an immediately positive impact on our lives if we want to stick with it. Michelle and I spend the rest of our conversation discussing the research-backed framework she’s developed to help people make exercise a sustainable habit, which includes less emphasis on willpower and more on changing the meaning you lend to physical activity and its priority in your life.

Show Highlights

  • What’s the success rate of most people’s health/fitness resolutions? 
  • What is the “motivation bubble”? What happens when that bubble bursts?
  • Why our fitness motives are often contaminated (including health-related reasons)
  • The failure of willpower and discipline to keep us on track with our exercise goals 
  • The MAPS framework for building a sustainable exercise habit 
  • Why faulty meaning in our exercise can lead to a cycle of failure 
  • Making exercise work for you by giving it new meaning 
  • Why you should exercise for positive experiences in the moment rather than long-term goals 
  • The relationship between exercise, diet, and mood 
  • The role of awareness in sustaining your exercise habits 
  • Giving yourself permission to prioritize your own well-being 
  • Why learning goals are better than performance/achievement goals 
  • Figuring out how to negotiate with yourself 
  • Using the MAPS framework for other types of goals 
  • What’s something that a listener can do today to make exercise a sustainable habit 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of No Sweat by Michelle Segar.

Connect With Michelle 

Michelle’s website

Michelle on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. It’s a new year, and like many people, you may have set a goal to exercise more regularly. But like most people, you set this goal before, only to give up on it after a few weeks. Why is it so hard to make exercise a habit? And more importantly, what can we do to make it stick? My guest today argues that more willpower and discipline isn’t the answer. Instead, you need to completely change the way you think about exercise. Her name is Michelle Segar, and she’s a behavioral scientist and the author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.

We begin our conversation discussing Michelle’s counterintuitive finding that common reasons for exercising, like losing weight, or even getting healthier aren’t effective motivations. And she shares research on how our ideas of what exercise should look like, as well as the propensity towards an all or nothing mindset, also set us up for failure. We then discuss why sheer discipline isn’t very effective for staying on track either, and why exercise needs to have an immediately positive impact on our lives if we want to stick with it.

Michelle and I spend the rest of our conversation discussing the research-backed framework she’s developed to help people make exercise a sustainable habit, which includes less emphasis on willpower and more on changing the meaning you lend to physical activity and its priority in your life. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right, Michelle Segar, welcome to the show.

Michelle Segar: It’s great to be here.

Brett McKay: So you are a behavioral scientist, and you’ve spent your career focusing on how to help people make exercise a sustainable habit. And this is a new year. It’s funny, I know a lot of people are making resolutions to exercise more. I think people have said that every year, and it never works out the way they want to. I mean, do you know, with your research, what’s the success or failure rate of most exercise or health goals that people set for themselves?

Michelle Segar: You know, I’ve worked with people with exercise goals, with healthy eating goals, with sleep goals, and the statistics I know refer specifically to physical activity. And in general, by six months, most people have discontinued their planned exercise. However, when it comes to resolutions, I’m not an expert on this topic, but my understanding is it’s much shorter, that people drop their resolutions, probably most people, within six to eight weeks.

Brett McKay: Why do the vast majority of fitness, or exercise, or healthy eating goals, why do they fail? Why do you think they fail?

Michelle Segar: Are you talking about New Years specifically?

Brett McKay: It could be New Years, it could be just goals that people set for themselves in general.

Michelle Segar: Sure. Well, I think the same thing happens in both cases, and I call it the motivation bubble. When people decide they’re going to change their health behavior in some way, whether it’s start exercising, or changing their eating, it’s their commitment, and declaration, and decisions, and purchases, and all the things that they do occur in this bubble of high-intensity motivation. It could be because of New Year’s resolutions, it could be because their spouse is pastoring them, it could be because their doctor is warning them about prediabetes. Whatever it is, it happens within this high motivation bubble, and as the name applies, we’re all really motivated in that bubble.

The problem is that once real life hits, whether it’s an unexpected urgent work deadline, or the call from school saying that your child is sick and you have to pick them up, whatever the unexpected thing is, it puts a hole in the bubble, and often it bursts the bubble because we have this all or nothing thinking when it comes to these behaviors. So we feel like, we’ve been taught to feel like when we miss one of our planned sessions, when we didn’t eat exactly as we had planned to, we messed up, and it bursts the bubble, and then all hell breaks loose, if you will.

The other thing that happens is that, oftentimes, we aren’t aware of this, but oftentimes our motivation for initiating things, that kind of gets us in the motivation bubble, is actually contaminated and we’re not aware of it. And I would say for most people, our motivation is contaminated when it comes to exercise or changing our dietary habits.

What I mean by that is, coming out of self-determination theory, if we’re initiating a behavior because we think we should do it, we’ve bought into the societal norms, we’ve bought into the notion, “Oh yeah, I should drop that 20 pounds,” or, “Oh yeah, my doctor’s right,” or, “Oh, swimming suit season is coming, I need to look buff,” or whatever it is. Those motives are often contaminated by a sense of obligation, a sense of I’m not good enough the way I am.

I would say, without fail most of the time, that contamination also can be what bursts our motivation bubble because research on dissonance theory shows that we are motivated to actually rebel against the things that we feel take away our freedom. So if we feel like we should exercise, then gosh darn it, I’m not going to. Or if we feel like we shouldn’t eat the chocolate cake, gosh darn it, I’m going to. And so that’s a big part of the phenomenon too.

Brett McKay: Well, I thought that was interesting in your book, No Sweat, talking about the goals are contaminated. Not even goals like, “I want to look better in a bathing suit,” but goals like, “I need to lose some weight so I can get in control of my prediabetes,” or, “I need to exercise more so I don’t have another heart attack.” Even those goals can backfire.

Michelle Segar: Yes, it’s so counter intuitive. When I started researching this topic, which was back in 1994, I had assumed that when people initiated a lifestyle change for health related reasons, whether it was for current health or future health, that those were somehow pure motives, and they should be really effective because, wow, what’s more important than our health?

Then, my colleagues and I conducted a study, and we were really surprised to see that people’s motivational profile, and how much they exercised, were very similar to the participants who were exercising to lose weight. We already knew from other research that weight loss and body shaping is not a motivation that keeps most people motivated for the longterm. But when we saw health, we were like, “Oh my gosh. How can that be?” I looked at these data with disbelief.

But after looking more into other literatures and thinking more about it … And by the way, that’s the beauty of research, is that when what you hypothesize doesn’t turn out to be as expected, it forces you to think more deeply about your assumptions and the way you think the world works. That’s what happened in this case, because once we looked into it, it was clear that while health seemed like a really relevant motive, when it comes down to it, A, we can feel pressured to boost our health. In our society, people feel pressured to do healthy things. It’s kind of a moral imperative, if you will. Just as a cultural norm, we feel pressured by our doctors, we feel pressured by our families, we feel pressured by our employers. So there’s a lot of pressure in there, which undermines high quality, stable motivation, as well as motivating us to rebel often.

But the other, and I think this might’ve been, if not equal, it’s at least equal, if not greater, the other problem with initiating a “healthy behavior” to boost health is that we live very busy, overly busy, full, hectic lives, and if you make a list of the urgent, compelling things that you have to get done every day, health, in theory, is important, but it’s not necessarily urgent or relevant today. So it winds up not having what I call goal clout, in that it just doesn’t have the clout to cut through the other things that we actually don’t have a choice about doing.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, a goal, like getting healthier, you can’t really see it, right? Like you can’t tell, “Well, is my blood sugar down?” Well, I can maybe check my blood sugar, but it’s not like I get my kids, not that concrete, so it just gets pushed to the back burner.

Michelle Segar: That’s part of it, but it’s also more than that because it’s not just … I mean, yes, we need feedback to keep striving towards our goals. But on a daily basis, if you say, how relevant is exercising for better health compared to all these other things? And we don’t have time to do all these other things, let alone add a behavior that doesn’t make the list of the top 10.

Brett McKay: Well, and besides goals being contaminated, our goals we set for exercise, how can people’s ideas of exercise itself set them up for failure?

Michelle Segar: Well, in addition to the goal topic that we’ve already talked about, if we’re aiming for future goals like better health, or weight loss, or another future-oriented goal, we know research shows that people are much more motivated by immediate rewards, AKA, “How do I feel right now?” as opposed to rewards we have to wait for, dropping 30 pounds in six months, or avoiding disease, diabetes, at a certain point. So that’s one thing.

The other thing that really gets in the way is people’s beliefs about what constitutes a valid session of exercise, or a good enough eating experience or eating choices. They’re often overly lofty and ambitious, and it really prevents us from doing anything. If, in order to successfully exercise or be a healthy eater, I have to achieve X, Y, and Z, and I can only achieve X, then why bother? So that’s a really big thing. And it’s no one’s fault that we have these beliefs, because as a society, we have been socialized to have an all or nothing perspective on these topics. But that’s a big reason people don’t stick with it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, something you talk about in the book is that people have this idea that exercise has to be hard. Like if you don’t work up a good sweat, and you don’t feel like you’re thrashed at the end of it, well, that doesn’t count.

Michelle Segar: That’s exactly right. And what most people don’t know, and even when people know this it’s still very hard to change these beliefs because they’ve been embedded for decades. But in 2018, in November 2018, the physical activity guidelines were changed to restate something that they had basically originally said in 1996, which was that you can accumulate physical activity during the day, and everything counts. Everything. I think knowing that science is really important for people to know. This isn’t just a, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if everything counted. My walk down the block with my dog that takes five minutes total, that doesn’t really count.” But it does.

I think what I’ve found in my coaching with individuals is that once people do start to believe this, that they actually discover that they’re doing things that count, which makes them feel good and confident, which motivates them to do more, which makes them feel even better. Then, once people feel comfortable and confident that they can be successful this way, they actually wind up doing more, and they often graduate to a next level, which might be fast walking, or joining a gym.

But we need to give people permission, just like people do in kindergarten, let’s get successful on the little stuff, and then let’s graduate. By the way, as you probably know, that’s not a new message. Start small. That’s common knowledge in education, and everyone’s kind of talking about it, and it’s not new. The problem is people still have trouble starting small, and it’s because of the reasons we’ve been talking about.

Brett McKay: You talked about how we’ve been socialized to, one, think that you should exercise for specific reasons, right? It’s an external motivator put on you, so it feels like a should. We have these ideas of what exercise is that’s been socialized. But people would hear this, “Okay, yeah, that’s what discipline, that’s what willpower is for. If you can’t stick to the goal, it just means you don’t have enough willpower or discipline.” But you make the case that willpower and discipline aren’t enough to overcome our inability to keep exercising. Why is that?

Michelle Segar: Well, I would say that it’s more than they’re not enough. It’s that, the way our brain works, we have a finite amount. And while there is some research that shows that people can increase their self-control, it’s also hardwired to a great extent. And so, if there’s a finite amount of willpower and discipline, then banking on that as your driver is not a very good idea.

The other thing is, inherent in needing to use willpower and discipline is that you really don’t want to do it. So why not flip that on its head, and figure out how to do things in ways that if they’re not pleasurable, they’re palatable, and you deeply understand the immediate value of your choices, not only to yourself, and your mood, and your energy level, but the domino effect that those things have on the rest of your life, like your family, and how you talk to your kids and your partner, and how much energy, and enthusiasm, and creativity you bring to your job.

Brett McKay: So in your research, you’ve developed an approach to sustainable exercise, sustainable physical activity, and you developed this program called MAPS, which is an acronym for meaning, awareness, permission, and strategy. You use this with clients when you coach them. Let’s dig into this, this meaning component of MAPS. When you start off working with a client, you ask them what exercise means to them. What are the most common answers you get to that question?

Michelle Segar: Well, I start with this very broad categorization that I’ve found to be very helpful that people really resonate with. I ask people, on a scale from one to five, one being a chore to five being a gift, where do you sit on that continuum? That’s really the beginning of the whole process. If someone’s come to me, then most likely they’re a one or a two, which is exercise feels like a chore.

Then, that’s the perfect entree into, “Well, why does it feel like a chore?” Then people explain the reasons why, and it might be, “I hate to run,” or, “I feel really uncomfortable in the gym.” Then you can say, “Well, why are you choosing that? What about being in the gym makes you uncomfortable?” What you want people to do is to start to develop self-awareness about what, deep down, underneath the word physical activity or exercise, what does it mean to you, if it’s a chore or a gift. Just getting people to assess that can be very eyeopening.

Brett McKay: And how does starting off an exercise goal with a faulty meaning, right, how can that create what you call the vicious cycle of failure? So first off, I guess, would be the question of what does this vicious cycle of failure look like? Then, how does starting off with a bad meaning sort of kickstart all of this?

Michelle Segar: Sure. The vicious cycle of failure keeps you stuck. It’s vicious because it harms people, it prevents them from being active in ways that would benefit them, and it makes people feel bad about themselves. So it’s vicious in that way. The second way it’s vicious is that we can’t escape it. So the way it starts is what I call the wrong why, and nothing is inherently wrong motivationally, unless, A, it doesn’t work for you, B, it makes you feel bad about yourself, and C, if research shows that it’s actually not going to work for you, because there is research about that.

So what happens is that … And I consider wrong whys to be things like focusing on weight loss, far away health goals, that sort of thing. What happens when you start with the wrong why, the beginning of the vicious cycle means that it feels like a chore from the get-go, from the get-go, and it doesn’t … But the important thing about the cycle is it does get you motivated to start. And I’m just going to link back to my comment about the motivation bubble, it does get you to start in your motivation bubble, but eventually most people drop out, or the bubble bursts and they feel like failures, life gets too busy, whatever it is. And they may stop for two weeks, two months, or two years, but eventually when they start again, it’s always in search of the next wrong why. That’s what keeps us stuck in the vicious cycle.

The wrong whys are on magazine covers, they’re the messages we might get from our employers that make us feel pressured. I mean, whatever it is, but you stay stuck, and it’s because that’s the only system we’ve learned in society.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think we’ve all experienced that vicious cycle of failure, right? You start off with what you think are good intentions, they are good intentions, you fail, then you feel worse, which kind of demotivates you for a little bit. You kind of go through that trough. You’re like, “I’m not good at anything. It’s never going to happen.” And then you kind of flagellate yourself to get back on the track, and then it just goes over, and over, and over again.

Michelle Segar: Exactly.

Brett McKay: So when you work with clients, and you’re helping them figure out the meaning of exercise to them, what works? What have you found works for meanings so you don’t start this vicious cycle of failure?

Michelle Segar: Well, the meaning, the way that I mean it, the way that I’ve come to understand it, is that your meaning of exercise, whether it’s a chore or a gift, is determined by, number one, the reason why you’re doing it, your goal or motive. And we’ve talked about that already. But the second is, the second part of meaning is created by the experiences you have while being active. So if you’re exercising in a way that you’re exhausted, you’re too tired to do, but you force yourself to do it, some people might think that’s a good thing, and some people do power through that punishing type of feeling. And if it works for them, great. A lot of other people, it creates such a bad feeling that it actually creates a negative association with exercise, and unconsciously, you want to avoid it.

So the way you help someone create a new meaning, which I talk about extensively, the steps, in my book, is you want to start to have positive experiences with physical activity. You want them to not only have positive experience with physical activity, you want them to start linking their reason for doing it, which research shows is literally it’s better if the reasons are about immediate benefits versus these distal health-related logical goals. And if we’re aiming for something positive now, then we have to make sure that our physical activity delivers that. So it’s working with both of those things, kind of synergistically get people to change their meanings.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So it sounds like you’re trying to help clients find physical activity that they actually enjoy doing, just for the thing itself.

Michelle Segar: Well, enjoyment is a specific word, and a lot of people use that word, I think, because I don’t think exercise is enjoyable for everyone. What I say is that we want to help people have some type of positive experience, or at least not a negative one. I mean, I’ve worked with people who say, “I just don’t feel anything, Michelle.” And at the beginning process of getting in touch with how we feel, some people don’t even feel it, and it’s because we’ve been taught to be disconnected from our bodies, whether it comes to eating or exercise. So it can be a process, but at least it’s not negative.

For example, I like to walk outside. I wouldn’t say I enjoy walking outside, I might say it feels good to walk outside, it lifts my mood to walk outside, or it energizes me. So I think what we want to do is offer up kind of a menu of potential benefits and rewards from moving, that then people can pick their own.

Brett McKay: This also means broadening the scope of what people consider exercise. Because oftentimes, people narrow it, like it’s either running on a treadmill, it’s doing CrossFit, it is doing some sort of weight lifting program, and that’s it. But there are other things they could do that could provide benefit, but they don’t think about it because they’ve never even considered it an option.

Michelle Segar: That’s right. That’s exactly right, and it gets back to something that we were talking about earlier, which is that the physical activity guidelines officially says everything counts, and anything is better than nothing. But because we’ve been, I will use this very intense word, we’ve been brainwashed that we have to do it in the way that you just said, that it’s very hard to become unbrainwashed. But I think that’s why I developed the process I did, because I think we need to give people an opportunity, I call it exorcizing exercise.

We want to give people a chance to toss out the beliefs, and attitudes, and practices that they discover are really getting in their way. That’s why I use a process. I don’t think it’s enough to just say, “Change your beliefs. Develop a new mindset,” because there’s this contaminated, heavy stuff below the surface of our consciousness that if we don’t address it, and basically burn through it, let it evaporate, let it out, it’s always going to be below the surface.

So even if you try some of the strategies we’re talking about, like starting small, if you don’t address the negativity, the shoulds, the resentment, the punishing meaning you have for that five minutes, those things are going to rear their ugly heads and get in the way.

Brett McKay: No, one of the reasons why, when I found your book and I read it, and it resonated with me, is because my experience, it synced up with what you were talking about. For years, I had tried different exercise modalities like, “I should exercise. I need to do this.” So I tried running; that lasted a month or two. I tried different weightlifting things with dumbbells and things; didn’t enjoy it. Tried the CrossFit thing;; that didn’t last for very long. But then three or four years ago, I discovered barbell training, and I really enjoy this. In the past four years, I’ve missed maybe a handful of workouts, and it’s not because I’m disciplined. It’s like, I look forward to it, I enjoy moving my body in that way. And it’s funny, it took me almost a decade to figure that out. Just that idea of like, I enjoy moving, it’s not unpleasant … I mean, it’s unpleasant in its different way, but it’s not like I dread doing it. It’s helped me sustain this modality that I do.

Michelle Segar: And you said it took 10 years, but when you think about the majority of the population, you’re way ahead of the game. I do want to say, I don’t know if I’ve ever said this before, but I think this is a really good analogy in some ways. When you do something intense like you’re talking about, because it is pretty intense, right?

Brett McKay: Yes, it can be, yeah.

Michelle Segar: Okay. And what is … I’m trying to think of the name of … Oh. It’s very quick, high-intensity weightlifting, and I don’t know, is that what it-

Brett McKay: Oh, HIIT. Oh, yeah.

Michelle Segar: It’s not HIIT, it’s weightlifting that’s-

Brett McKay: No, I do like power lifting type stuff, but-

Michelle Segar: Okay, so that’s different.

Brett McKay: Sure.

Michelle Segar: But you said you enjoy it, and you’re like, “Well, it’s not that there isn’t some challenge,” but when you said that, it reminded me of wasabi. I love wasabi, and it is painful sometimes.

Brett McKay: Right.

Michelle Segar: But there’s something about that experience that I enjoy. But the difference, the big thing is that I’m choosing to eat the wasabi. It’s not being forced down my throat. You’re choosing to do that exercise. And research shows that, while in general, high intensity exercise, which is not what you’re talking about, but in general, exercise that is intense and hard in some ways, reduces people’s pleasure. So that’s not a good thing if your pleasure is reduced, because you’re not likely to keep going.

If you autonomously choose to do the exercise, and deeply autonomous, because a lot of times people will say, “Well, I chose to go to Orange Theory, so doesn’t it count?” Well, if you’re going to Orange Theory, yeah, you chose to do it, but are you doing it out of the wrong why? Does it feel like a should? Those sorts of things. So when you choose those things because you deeply want to do it, then your displeasure may not go up. So picking the experiences, even if they are challenging or slightly painful, like wasabi or whatever, as long as you’re in control, it’s going to have a different meaning than if … If someone stuffed wasabi down my throat, it would be horrible, right? I’d hate it. And that’s true with exercise.

Brett McKay: So someone might be hearing this, saying, “Okay, with exercise, I just need to, my why needs to be something that maybe I don’t necessarily enjoy, it feels good, it’s pleasant. I can make that a meaning. But I can also make the meaning of exercise, well, I’m going to lose some weight and look better.” Can you have multiple meanings to exercise?

Michelle Segar: That’s a really great question. And I think the short answer is that there’s been research that shows both sides. The challenge with weight loss, and I’ll give you an example, I was working with a client who was wanting to eat in healthier ways, and she came to me pretty obsessed about losing weight, and unhappy with her weight that she’d basically maintained for 20 or 30 years. She had been in the vicious cycle of failure for that long.

That was one of the questions I asked her, you know, “Have you tried to lose weight and eat in ways by focusing on your weight and doing it an extreme way?” And she’s like, “Yes, that’s how I’ve always done it.” I said, “Has it worked for you long term?” And she’s like, “Absolutely not. It’s never worked.” So I said, “Well, do you want to stop? Are you ready to stop hitting your head against the same wall?” In theory, the answer was yes, but as we were doing our work, she kept talking about weight, and focusing on the scale.

So to answer your question, if weight is in the equation, it contaminates your relationship with a behavior like physical activity. So you can say, “Yes, I want to enjoy it,” but if you’re a slave to your scale, then you really can’t create a new meaning for exercise, or other behaviors like it. So it’s not that you shouldn’t try to lose weight, it’s that in my work with people, I say, “Put your desire for weight loss, pause it.” I really can only work with people who can pause it, because otherwise they can’t be successful.

Then, once you’ve learned how to institutionalize physical activity into your life in sustainable ways, that means consistency through the ups and downs, then, if you want to lose weight, focus on eating. The other really important thing, and a lot of people know this, but a lot of people don’t, eating beats out exercise exponentially in determining how much we weigh. So if you want to lose weight, exercise is good for helping you sleep, for boosting your energy, for boosting your mood. All of those things would support better eating. But when it comes to calorie expenditure, it’s just not that effective. So if you want to lose weight, you’re better off, I think, creating this foundation of physical activity, what’s going to benefit your mental, your outlook, your mindset, your mood, which will then, when you’re ready and when you’ve learned how to sustain physical activity, then focus on eating.

I mean, and clients of mine have said that they’ve done that, and then I run into them, in some cases, and they’re like, “I decided to start losing weight, and I joined a program like Weight Watchers, and it was so much easier to do because I didn’t have to think about exercise too. It was already a part of my life.”

Brett McKay: All right, so that’s meaning. The next part of MAPS is awareness. What do you mean by awareness? What does that look like?

Michelle Segar: Well, awareness, it’s kind of a hard word to define. It’s really being aware of, and mindful of the beliefs you hold about physical activity. Does it have to be hard and vigorous, like you suggested earlier? Does it have to be done exactly the same every time I do it? Is it supposed to, is it going to help me drop 10 pounds? So awareness is really about helping people become aware of the beliefs they have about physical activity that either support or undermine it, as well as become aware of the true challenges they have to sticking with exercise. Is it other people in your life? Do they undermine you? Is it that you’ve picked a physical activity or a gym that takes an hour to get to? I mean, is it simply the beliefs you have that it’s hard and vigorous, and you hate doing it that way?

So awareness encapsulates both of those things, and that’s part of the process.

Brett McKay: It sounds like awareness also might involve being aware of what you enjoy, or what feels good, what kind of movement feels good, and-

Michelle Segar: That’s exactly right.

Brett McKay: … yeah, listening to it.

Michelle Segar: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: Yeah, because a lot of times people will … I think you talked about, there’s clients who were able to tell you things that they enjoyed, but they would just ignore it because they’re like, “Well, that’s not exercise.” You’d say, “No, no, no, no. You need to pay attention to that, and let’s focus on that.”

Michelle Segar: Absolutely. I mean, I had a client and he … At first, people are like, “I don’t think I like anything.” That’s a normal response based on a history that was full of negative experiences. And then, “Well, what did you like to do?” This is like a classic, cliche thing. “Well, what did you like to do as a kid?” “Well, I biked. I loved to bike.” Then this gentleman bought a grownup bike, and during the summer months that became the physical activity he did. So search deep for the answer, and then experiment. You’re not marrying what you choose, you’re actually just experimenting to see what works, what you like, what you don’t.

Brett McKay: So moving from awareness, there’s permission. What do you mean by permission? Is it just permission to enjoy exercise? Like think of exercise as a gift to you, is that what you mean by permission? Or is it something broader?

Michelle Segar: I mean two things by permission. Absolutely, permission to get rid of the beliefs that get in your way. Permission to pick physical activities that are pleasurable, or make you feel good. But the overarching permission that I talk about in the book is about permission to prioritize your own wellbeing and self-care. A lot of people don’t feel that they have the right to take time out of their day, or that it’s worth taking time out of their day to feel good from physical movement.

The way that I help people give themselves permission is to help them understand, in real ways in between our sessions, that if you do your selected healthy behavior, how do you feel when you do it? How do you feel when you don’t do it? Then, how does the rest of your life go?

Once people, in a very real way, begin to notice, “Gee, when I don’t do this, I feel this way, and that really undermines … I’m grumpier when I talk to my kids. I feel resentful at work, and certainly not creative. But when I do do it, it turns everything around,” then that legitimizes the time spent, whether it’s getting an extra 30 minutes of sleep, or walking for 20 minutes outside after work before you go home, whatever it is, it legitimize that time because you begin to understand that, “Wow, this isn’t just about feeling good. This is actually about everything else. This is about me feeling myself for what matters most.”

Brett McKay: Yeah, I imagine this could be a really hard part of the program because I think a lot of people might listen and go, “Yeah, I’m going to change my meaning. I can do that. But man, I’m so busy. I’ve got obligations with work, with family, with these other activities I’m doing. It would be self-indulgent. I just don’t have the time to do that.” That’s something I’m sure you have to work a lot with your clients.

Michelle Segar: This is the hardest issue. This is the hardest part of the process, because at its core, this issue touches on what are we valuable for? Like, who are we, and what is our value in the world? So in society, we’re rewarded for being successful at work. We are rewarded, we feel rewarded for being good parents, and partners, and all that. But we’re not rewarded for self-care, and we’re not rewarded to increase our sense of wellbeing. So that truly is the most difficult thing.

There’s a couple things I want to say in response to that. Number one, one of the reasons people … an interaction with this issue is that if people’s plans are too lofty, yeah, it’s really hard to fit in exercise if it has to be an hour, as opposed to 10 minutes. Right? So that interacts with this issue.

The second thing is that a lot of people perceive people like me, who advocates for this stuff, and maybe you, who does this regularly, people believe that we don’t have any challenges, and that it’s just easy and effortless for us to make it work. I think it’s really important to say that, unless you’re like my husband, and some people are, I don’t think most people are, I mean he gets up every morning at 5:00 to do his exercise because that’s what he needs to feel good during his day. But I still struggle. I’ve got an inbox that’s full that I want to get down, I have work I want to finish, and sometimes I choose to take my walks, and sometimes I don’t. I think it’s really important for people to know that I don’t always choose to do the exercise.

What I don’t do, is feel like a failure, or think poorly and negatively judge ourselves for that choice. That’s one of the contaminators of motivation. When we judge ourselves negatively for not doing something, that’s like an injection of poisoned motivation, if you will. So I do think it’s really important for people to give themselves a break, cut themselves some slack, and know that most people, even those of us who seem successful or are successful, we don’t do it all the time.

Brett McKay: Finally, in the MAPS program that you have, is strategy. And you’ve got six big ideas to help people think about exercise and self-care differently, to help them overcome roadblocks they’re going to probably encounter because they’re busy, life happens. Let’s talk about a few of these. The first one is this idea of making your exercise a learning goal, as opposed to a performance goal. What’s the difference between the two, and why are learning goals better?

Michelle Segar: Sure. In different fields, they use different terms, and whether it’s a performance goal, or an achievement goal, it means you’re aiming for something. It means when you’re doing it, you’re really focused on hitting the bullseye, and that creates a lot of pressure and stress. Research shows that in complex contexts, that type of goal, in changing dynamic context, having that kind of goal is going to be less effective for you to achieve what you’re trying to achieve than if you consider what you’re doing as a learning goal.

For example, if I’m aiming to either lose 50 pounds through whatever I’m doing, or I’m aiming to perfectly enact my healthy behavior goal five out of five days, those would be considered achievement or performance goals. But if instead I’m thinking about this as a project where, gosh, sometimes I’m going to get it, sometimes I’m not, but every time I do it, especially when I don’t do it, it gives me an opportunity to learn and get better for the next time, that takes the pressure off. Research shows that when people have these types of learning goals, they have more intrinsic motivation, which is one of the best type of motivation, intrinsic motivation, in terms of sustainability, they have greater persistence in the face of challenges.

I mean, think about it. If you’ve got to be perfect and a challenge happens, what’s the point of going forward? But if instead something happens and gets in your way, you’re like, “Oh, okay, this happened. What can I learn about this? How can I do it differently the next time?” You don’t have to stop, you just have to pause and learn. Does that make sense?

Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Then another idea is this idea for strategizing, is learning how to negotiate with yourself. What do you mean by that? And what does that look like?

Michelle Segar: Well, in a lot of areas of life, we have to negotiate. We have to negotiate when we get jobs, we have to negotiate over who’s going to do the dishes at night, we have to negotiate all the time in all kinds of circumstances. And typically, we associate the word negotiate mostly with money. But really, we always do have to negotiate ourselves, and it gets back to the permission content that we talked about earlier, which is, “Okay, am I going …” The all or nothing thinking, really, if that’s what you’re doing, you’re not negotiating.

So here’s an example. “Okay, I plan to take a 45 minute walk outside, and I really want to finish this manuscript. So what am I going to do?” The way you negotiate is you go, “Okay, well I don’t want to give up my walk, but I really, I’m going to be stressed out if I don’t make progress toward finishing this manuscript.” Negotiating would be, “Well, how about we split the time 50/50,” or, “At this moment, finishing that manuscript has some urgency associated with it, so maybe I’ll do 35 minutes, and give myself 10 minutes of the walk.” So it’s really understanding that we do have to negotiate with ourselves when it comes to this stuff.

Brett McKay: As we’ve been talking about this, we’ve been talking about exercise, but this MAPS program you developed, it sounds like it could work for other habits that people want to develop as well.

Michelle Segar: Absolutely. That’s true, and I’ve used it for other things, and clients who worked with me with exercise, for example, on their own, have used MAPS in other areas, including eating. I had someone contact me really, I don’t know, over a decade later, who said that she had to have hip surgery, just a regular kind of aging-related thing, and in her recovery period, she used MAPS to help her do what she needed to do with her physical therapy and the meaning she brought to what she was doing. So yeah, MAPS really can be used for anything.

Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking kind of big picture, and there’s a lot more details in your book, but say someone’s listening to this like, “Okay, I want to start implementing this today.” What would you say the one or two things that you would recommend someone doing today so that they can start making exercise a sustainable part of their life?

Michelle Segar: Well, I think the first thing I would say to them, you know, be very clear about whether your intention to do this is truly yours, or if you’re doing it out of some type of should. And if it’s truly yours, then move forward and find something that you want to do, if you want to do it with your family or alone in nature. Find something that really feels like it would work for you, and then experiment with whether it gives you what you’re hoping for, how to fit it into your life. There’s all these logistical issues people have to figure out.

If it feels like a should when you really ask yourself to be honest, then the question is, well, why? Why does it feel like a should? And are you willing to maybe let go of that, and instead decide to fuel yourself in some way? So I would say that’s the beginning phase.

Brett McKay: Well, Michelle, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book, No Sweat, and your work?

Michelle Segar: I have a website, that’s, and there’s information about the book, there’s some blog posts, that sort of thing. So yeah, it’s been such a pleasure to speak with you.

Brett McKay: Well Michelle Segar, thanks so much time. It’s been a pleasure.

Michelle Segar: Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Michelle Segar. She’s the author of the book, No Sweat. It’s available on, and you can also find out more information about her work at her website, Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as over 3000 articles we’ve published over the years about how to be a better man, and how to take action on being a better man. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code Manliness to get a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, you can download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM Podcast.

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