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In 1994, Michelle Segar, while working towards a master's degree in kinesiology, got a chance to be involved in a pioneering study on fitness, trying to mitigate anxiety and depression in cancer patients. The results were heartening: Patients who exercised regularly showed significantly lower levels of depression and anxiety than the control group which didn't work out. Score one for fitness.

Except it was a mirage. Three months later, when the participants in the study returned for a check-in, they talked positively about exercise but had stopped when the research terminated.

"It was a shocker," Ms. Segar recalls in an interview. "They had kids. They had work. They were busy and didn't prioritize self-care. I thought this is a big problem in society and I am going to solve it."

She added a second master's degree, in health behaviour and a PhD in psychology, delving into motivation. Ms. Segar has worked with many people on fitness programs through her private practice and role directing the University of Michigan's Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center. In her recent book, No Sweat, she pinpoints where many of us have been led astray by the calls for improved fitness and how we can avoid being like those participants in the study. "We're going wrong because we taught the wrong approach. It's not people's fault," Ms. Segar in an interview.

It starts with motivation. We are told to be healthy – to avoid future diseases – we have to exercise. But that's about tomorrow, and we live in today. Telling someone exercising will cut their chances of heart disease in 20 years just doesn't cut it motivationally. Even promising they will lose weight and have a better body in three months or six months is a weak lure. "People are motivated by how they will benefit today. They are too busy to give priority to a task that will help them in three months or years from now," Ms. Segar says. "What drives most people is the immediate reward – their mood is lifted or they generally feel better on days they exercise than days they don't."

So exercise must be pitched by governments and health officials as something for today. We live in today. We make the choice today. We want the reward today. Perhaps that's not true for you. Perhaps you can be motivated by the future. Figure out which time period makes sense for you, and then stoke your fire accordingly.

The second problem Ms. Segar points to is that we are being told we must exercise in a defined way: Periods of 30 to 90 minutes, preferably intensely. That's the model driven in to us from an early age. Instead, she thinks we need to see a continuum of choices, from that heavy exercise period at the gym to simply taking the steps instead of the elevator at the office. "We need to exercise in ways that feel good and are easier to do so we'll stick with it," she says.

The research is showing benefits from small pockets of exercise throughout the day. Decide what fits best with your lifestyle. If you can carve out time in the gym or on the home elliptical every day for an hour, wonderful. If you can't, don't feel guilty. Look at what can be done during the day to keep you healthier.

Ms. Segar calls it taking ownership for your own exercise. And she finds once people are given permission to choose different paths they get excited, and exercise levels go up.

Here are three of Ms. Segar's favourite approaches:

  • Active waiting: Parents spend lots of time waiting as their children get exercise and take part in other physical activities. It’s fun at your child’s soccer game to chat with the other parents, watch your child, and poke away on your mobile. But if the child is playing for an hour or 90 minutes, what about spending half of it exercising yourself – walk around the perimeter of the building or if it’s a gym find a place for your own favourite fitness routine?
  • The long cut: Most of us spend our lives looking for short cuts, notably trying to find a parking spot as close to the office where a meeting is being held or the store we’re shopping at. What if you took the opposite approach, parking further away, a long cut that builds in some time to walk. You will need to provide a cushion of time for ambling but it still makes the exercise fit neatly into your day’s routine. And you can vary it: Park half an hour away some days and 10 minutes other days.
  • The Couples Cruise: Take a walk tonight with your partner, sharing some exercise and time together. It gets you out of your hectic lives for a short period of time, encourages intimacy, and provides some fitness.

"It's time you stop doing what you think you should be doing and do what you want to do and what will work for your health," Ms. Segar says. "It's your move."

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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