My colleagues and I at the University of Michigan recently published an eye-opening study on midlife women.  It showed that the health benefits we’ve been taught to strive to achieve through exercising might not be powerful enough to deliver the health outcomes we desire.

We collected data over one year from 226 women who worked full time. Respondents were asked about their exercise goals and participation, how much they valued their goals, body mass index (BMI) and social support.

Our study found that women reported valuing exercise benefits related to “current health,” “healthy aging,” and “daily quality of life” the same amount.

But the women who exercised to enhance the quality of their daily life exercised more over one year than the other two groups.

The study showed a few key things: What we say is important does not necessarily translate into behavior. Sure we’ve been socialized that we should want to be healthy, and that exercising is a great way to achieve better health. Most of us would say we highly value good health.

But here’s the rub. Health and healthy aging are benefits from exercise we might never notice and might not even achieve them for 10-20 years.

How compelling do these far off benefits make exercise to fit into your busy life TODAY? Unless you don’t work and have a lot of leisure time, many women won’t stay motivated to exercise with far off benefits as the reward.

This highlights the large gap between what we consider “important” and what is “compelling” enough to fit into our busy days. If health doesn’t motivate us to exercise regularly, then we won’t get the resulting health benefits regulation participation brings!

In contrast to health, we discovered that benefits from exercise that are immediately experienced, like reduced stress and improved mood and energy, transform exercise into a very compelling activity to fit in.

Oprah figured this out too. Her marketing team understood that health isn’t as relevant to women’s daily lives as feeling good. In 2010, they changed the name of their “health column” in O Magazine to “Feeling Good” to reflect this insight.

Our new research was picked up by a health care economist. She reported that our findings are completely in line with the “hot off the press” 2011 Edelman Health Barometer (EHB) research.

The Department of Health and Human Services also featured our thought-provoking research in a podcast, here.

Consider this: When you reduce your stress, get more energy and lift your mood from being physically active all of your other roles and responsibilities benefit as well! Downstream benefits include, being a more patient parent, being creative and focused at work, enjoying your spouse instead of being irritated. Can you see how these types of meaningful benefits make exercise more relevant to fit in?

Exercising for health is logical, but people’s daily decisions are more often connected to emotion than logic. If the goal is to sustain physically lives throughout life than we have to take stock and assess how motivating our reasons for being active truly are.

The great news is that we can change our reasons for exercising easily and discover the well of authentic motivation that resides inside of you. I do this all of the time with my clients.

I recommend five steps to rebrand exercise FOR YOURSELF and improve your motivation and desire to stick with it:

1. Assess the specific benefits you have been striving to achieve, in general, from exercising. (Most say “weight loss”)

2. Ask yourself: How effective have these reasons been? Do they lead me to stay motivated?

3. Ask yourself, what values and experiences YOU most care about achieving in your daily life that exercise benefits would impact, such as reduced stress and improved mood. (How would impacting those things impact other areas you care deeply about?)

4. Give yourself permission to change your reasons for exercising to ones that connect to YOUR core values and life goals.

5. Stop following prescriptive advice. “One size does not fit all” when it comes to exercise or our reasons for exercising.   You have to make it meaningful FOR YOU if you hope to keep it up.

You can read the full study, Rebranding Exercise: Closing the gap between values and behavior, here.

You canr listen to a two-minute podcast summarizing this new research.

Please tell others that you think would be interested in this counterintuitive research on women’s exercise motivation and behavior through the social media and email icons below.

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