Tag Archives: fitness

“Getting a Good Night’s Sleep Is a Top Priority, and a Bath Is a Delightful Habit.”

Interview: Michelle Segar.

I was excited to get my copy of motivation scientist Michelle Segar’s new book, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. She and I are interested in so many of the same things — in particular, the big question of how we can stick to healthier behaviors.

Her work is especially interesting to me, because she focuses on “motivation,” which is a term that I generally don’t use.  I was curious to hear what she had to say.

Gretchen: You have a new book being published this month called No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. In your view, how do habits and motivation intersect?

Michelle: That’s such a good question, and it gets to the heart of my book, my research – my life, really. I’m all about creating sustainable behavior change: How can we get motivated to permit ourselves to make our own self—care a priority, and how can we stay motivated to keep it that way? Because I think everyone has had the experience of saying, “Oh, I have to get off the couch and get some exercise or …..“Yeah, I did really well for a while, I was going to the gym every day, but my life just came crashing in on me . . . “I’m so lazy. . .” But I refuse to believe that we are “lazy” or “bad” or “hopeless” when we have had troubling adopting new habits.

In my research I’ve been especially interested in why we fail to adopt behaviors and habits, even those that we desperately want to change and end up spending big bucks for special clothes, programs, gym memberships. I’ve found that our cultural context —— “Exercise will make you thin.” “Do it ‘till it burns” and “No pain, no gain” —— plays a huge part. There’s even a new message now, “Exercise is medicine.” Through socialization, these become our beliefs about exercise, especially how exercising will benefit us. But many of these beliefs actually poison our motivation and prevent us from sticking with it over time. So as much as we try to break our “bad exercise habits,” we fail over and over again and just end up feeling bad.

My research and other science suggests that our primary reason for initiating a new healthy habit, like exercise or dietary change, strongly influences our motivation and ultimately our ability to stick with it over time. If our motivation feels like a “should” – we should try to lose weight because our doctor said so, or we should go for a run because we need more exercise —— we start off feeling under pressure and that’s a recipe for short-term motivation.

So if the wrong kind of motivation just doesn’t last, what does science show is the best motivator for a lifetime of fitness?

In general, on a day-to-day basis, we are not motivated long-term by logic, or at least not for very long. So you can tell yourself that you need to exercise to lose weight, for your appearance, for your health, because your mom said so, whatever – but that’s not going to keep you going to the gym forever, sweating off the pounds, especially if you don’t like high—intensity exercise or you hate to sweat. Logic often motivate us to start, but for many of us, these pragmatic or pressurizing purposes for exercise are not compelling enough to maintain.

Here’s the basic example: You want to lose weight, so you go on a strict diet. But eventually, you find that you really want that bag of chips. So you think you’ll just try one, but it’s so good you eat the whole bag. Then, of course, you feel like a failure. But wait, here’s what’s really happening, and how you can use it to your advantage.

We tend to make decisions on the basis of how things make us feel in the moment, and we especially respond to immediate positive reinforcement: If it’s supposedly “good” for us but we don’t see the result for months or years, we lose steam. If it makes us feel amazing right now, if we enjoy it in the moment, our brains flood with happiness chemicals and we’re going to keep coming back for that great experience again and again.

Apply this to doing exercise that feels good versus working up a sweat because you think you should, and Voila! You’ve changed your behavior for the long term. I detail the full method I use with my clients to achieve this shift in No Sweat.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Well, spending a summer with my cousin many years ago actually helped me develop the habit of flossing every night! But as an adult I would say my husband has influenced me the most. When I get deeply involved in a large project or many smaller projects, I make piles of materials and papers all over the floor. I am a very visual person and I want to see all the resources that I’m using for any given project. That makes for a very messy office, which can leak into the rest of our house. My husband has done a great job of helping me become more aware of when I do this so I can course correct and not reinforce this habit with more piles.

I am a big believer in setting up systems to support and maintain our desired behaviors, and in taking a step back to understand the undesired behavior so you can overturn it. So, in talking to my friend about this challenge, we came up with a new system for me. I now have magazine racks across the walls of my office, which supports the visual—based approach that works for me but also keeps my papers neatly organized, vertically, instead of all over my floor.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

That’s an interesting question! In my personal life I’d say that I rely on being able to negotiate the challenges that arise more than I do habits. I call it “dancing with my challenges.”

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits?

You might be surprised by this, given the focus of my work, but scheduling regular bouts of physical activity is not one of my habits. My schedule varies wildly day by day — sometimes I’m in the office, sometimes I’m teaching, sometimes I’m attending a seminar out of town, sometimes I’m working at home. So I can’t just decide that Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I’m going to take a 45-minute walk, even though that’s what really replenishes me.

Instead, I do what I tell my coaching clients to do, and what I suggest in my book: I aim to move for a reasonable amount of time, not necessarily all at the same time, on most days of the week. At the beginning of the work week, or even at the beginning of the day, I preview when I can fit my walk in, but I never count on it — I know that life is likely to throw a curve ball and my plans will get challenged. So I always leave room to improvise by doing less, or doing it a different time or place, or even giving myself permission to miss that planned walk if there really is no time for it. And there’s no guilt because I’m in it for the long haul, so missing one or a few walks every now and then simply doesn’t matter.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

As soon as you asked this question one of my favorite things popped into my mind: My nightly bath! It’s a ritual that helps me relax and quiet my mind so I can transition into sleep mode. In my book, I talk about how important sleep is for me, what I refer to as my “foundational self—care behavior,” the one thing that helps fuel me for all the other things I do in my daily life. (My husband’s foundational behavior is his early morning high intensity workout, but that’s another story!) For me, doing whatever it takes to get a good night sleep is a top priority, and a bath is a pretty delightful habit to have. I take a bath every night, no matter what time I start to wind down, even if I get back from a party at 1 a.m. (not something I do often these days, with a seven year old at home.) My baths feel like a gift I give myself every night.

Video: The Moral Licensing Loophole. Very Popular!

In my new (bestselling) book, Better Than Before, I identify the twenty-one strategies of habit-formation, and one is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the ten categories of loopholes. I love studying loopholes, because they’re so funny. And ingenious! We’re such great advocates for ourselves — in any situation, we can always think of some loophole to invoke.

Well, what is a “loophole?” When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps reject them.

In Better Than Before, I describe all ten categories of loopholes; in this video series. I’ll describe them, one by one.

Second of ten loopholes: the Moral Licensing Loophole.


Here are some examples of how we might use this loophole:

After the day I had, I’ve earned a nice glass of wine.

I’ve been losing weight steadily on this diet, so it will be okay for me to cut a few corners.

I’ve been so diligent about meditating, I deserve a day off.

I haven’t had Girl Scout cookies in years, so I should be able to have some now.

This is a very popular loophole! If you’ve invoked it, how did you use it?

7 Tips To Make It Easier To Have Healthy Eating Habits.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: 7 tips that make it easier to have healthy eating habits.

Many people were very intrigued by my interview with behavioral scientist Brian Wansink and his ideas. He studies eating behavior and consumer habits, and has a book that just came out: Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.

I asked him for some of his top tips, and he gave me these excellent suggestions to “Help your kitchen make you slim.”

  1. Serve vegetables first.
  2. Serve the main dish from the stove or counter, so that to get seconds, you have to stand up and go get more. (This combines the Strategy of Inconvenience, because you can’t just reach out to take more food, and the Strategy of Monitoring, because you can keep track better of how much you’re eating.)
  3. Use dinner plates that are 9-10 wide. We eat less when we use a smaller plate, but American plate sizes have been steadily growing.
  4. Sit at a table, with the TV off. People eat more, without noticing, if they’re watching TV. And if you have to sit at a table to eat, you’ve made it harder to have impulsive snacks.
  5. Keep two or fewer cans of sugary drinks in your fridge.
  6. Keep your kitchen counters organized, not messy. (I was interested to see this one — it confirms my argument about the Strategy of Foundation and the importance of “uncluttering.”)
  7. Keep snack foods in one inconvenient cupboard. (Again, the Strategy of Inconvenience.)

What would be your best tips? I remind myself of one of my Secrets of Adulthood for Habits: It’s easier to change my surroundings than myself. It’s easier to put cookies on a high shelf than to boost my willpower.

I talk about all of these tips in Better Than Before, my forthcoming book about habit change. The most fascinating subject in the world. To pre-order, click here. If you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate your pre-order. Pre-orders really matter.


“I’ve Cultivated the Habit of Hard Work, Which Is Deeply Satisfying.”

Habits interview: Nina Teicholz.

I’m hard at work on my book about habits, and it focuses on how to change a habit — whatever you want your habit to be. Whether you want to start flossing, stop procrastinating about writing your novel,  get more sleep, spend more time with friends, or however you might want to see change. (If you want to know when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

Most of us have some habits that we’d like to make or break. A few years ago, I changed my eating habits. For one thing, I used to eat non-fat everything — non-fat yogurt, skim milk, egg-white omelets, turkey burgers — and now, based on the research I’ve read (borne out by my personal experience), I embrace the full-fat version of everything.

Nina Teicholz has written a fascinating book, The Big Fat Surprise, which is a deep look at this question. In this book, which has generated a tremendous amount of discussion since it came out, she explores why we came to believe that the macro-nutrient fat is bad for our health — and why it really isn’t bad for our health. Really. Even saturated fat is fine. It may be hard to believe, I know, but the research is very compelling. The arguments are complex, so I won’t summarize them here, but this heavily researched account takes you through the debate.

By chance, she and I live very near each other, so recently we met for lunch (which included fat).

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Nina: The research for my book led me to conclude that the saturated fats in meat, cheese and eggs are not bad for health. In fact, they are essential parts of a healthy diet. Also, fat does not make you fat.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

I’ve taken a good hard look at the past year–the result of working like crazy to finish my book–and have to conclude that I have few good habits. I hardly do anything in a routine way and don’t take time for myself. Work and motherhood have stretched me thin. However, I make time to read to my boys every night, which is a wonderful way for us to all be together. I call my mom regularly–that always cheers me up. And I’ve cultivated the habit of hard work, which is deeply satisfying.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Yes, of course. I fail to exercise regularly, rarely sit down to eat properly, and allow myself to obsess about things I can’t change. I have, however, achieved a state of enlightenment about how bad these habits are for me and know that one day, I’ll get my act together.

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Before and After: “When I’d Leave My Office, I Wouldn’t Visit the Restroom.”

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from someone who wants to stay anonymous.

I have to say, this is one of the most ingenious strategies I’ve encountered in all my research. It’s a strategy that’s readily available to us all, doesn’t cost anything, easy to implement…

I wanted to establish a regular exercise routine. I have a gym membership and enjoyed working out at the gym close to my home on weekends, but couldn’t manage to get there during the week. Once I got home to change clothes, I never made it to the gym. So I researched gyms close to work and started carrying my gym bag in the car. When I’d leave my office, I wouldn’t visit the restroom. Instead, I would leave with some urgency and need to stop by the gym for relief. That got me in the door. Once I got there, the energy of the place took over, and I would work out before heading for home.

Brilliant! (Obviously, you wouldn’t want to employ this strategy in a way that would stress your body so much as to cause health issues, etc. etc.)

How do you get yourself to exercise? Exercising regularly is definitely one of the most popular of desired habits of the Essential Seven.

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