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Reframing Workouts

On a cold winter morning, it’s not easy to wake up early and work out. Hitting the gym after a long day on the job presents a new set of challenges. Sometimes it seems like there’s never a good time, especially when exercise is viewed as a time-consuming obligation, not an enjoyable, integral part of our lives. But a new study co-authored by the Communication Department’s Chan Thai indicates that shifting expectations about exercise could help people enjoy it more and improve their health.

Michelle Segar, director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center, is the lead author of the study. It is co-authored by Jennifer M. Taber, Heather Patrick, Thai, and April Oh.

The research team asked a diverse group of women between the ages of 22 and 49 to discuss what makes them feel satisfied and successful, as well as how physical activity fits into their lives.

“All of the women—whether they were regular exercisers or not—turned out to want the same things out of life: to have meaningful connections with others, to feel relaxed and free of pressure during their leisure time and to accomplish the goals they’d set for themselves, whether in their personal lives, their careers or simply their daily to-do lists,” writes Amanda MacMillan in Time. “The big difference, the researchers found, was that women who were inactive viewed exercise as counterproductive to those things. In order for exercise to be valid, they thought, it had to be seriously heart-pumping and sweat-inducing — the complete opposite of the “relaxing” feeling they wanted from their free time.”

The study recommended finding ways to reframe exercise as an activity that can help women achieve their overall goals, not thwart them. For instance, women can integrate physical activity with their goal of spending time with family and friends by going on walks or hikes together. “To increase motivation to be physically active, we need to help women to want to exercise instead of feeling like they should do it,” Segar told the Daily Mail.

Thai’s work draws on her career in public health before she transitioned to communication research. One of her goals has always been encouraging people to pursue activities that will keep them healthy and figuring out the most effective ways to make it happen.

“Knowing that my scholarship has the potential to impact people in a tangible and positive way is very motivating and rewarding,” Thai said. “It drives me to continue to do the work that I do.”

Thai’s research has shown that personal, internal motivation — rather than external pressures and expectations — leads to more satisfaction and better results when it comes to exercise. But those findings also hold true in the classroom.

“I apply these concepts to my teaching by trying to find ways to link course concepts to things that students interact with in their everyday lives to increase intrinsic motivation to learn the material and to emphasize the process of learning rather than the objective outcome of a grade,” Thai said.

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