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3 Strategies to Reframe Your Thinking on Exercise

Even though most of us put happiness near the top of our want lists, many of us are secretly convinced that it will always be just out of reach. But the truth is that happiness is already available to us. All we have to do is start moving.

Scientific evidence is mounting that moving our bodies changes our brains in ways that can lead to happiness. In fact, it turns out that moving our bodies is one of the best ways to foster a chemical reaction that leads to happiness. Even small amounts of movement — as little as one minute – boost energy and mood. Research also shows that we are much more likely to stick with exercise that we choose autonomously, enjoy doing, and makes us feel great right now.

Stop thinking about moving your body as something you should do for your health or to get in shape or because it’s good for us. These motivators almost inevitably falter when there aren’t immediate results.

The immediate payoffs of exercise are good ones: less stress, higher energy levels, and a more positive outlook. A published study in the Journal of Exercise and Sport Psychology that investigated the “feel good” effects from physical activity among 190 young adults reported that physical activity was associated with increased feelings of energy and enthusiasm. Who doesn’t want that?

Below are three ways to reframe your thinking about exercise:

Myth: “Exercise” means long, intense workouts. Nothing else counts.
Reality: Exercise includes an enormous and varied range of physical movement that you can fit in virtually anywhere, any time. Research shows that regular movement not only staves off the physiological precursors of illness, even small amounts of movement boost energy and mood.

  • Count all of the physical movement you do, regardless of intensity or duration, and add it up.
  • Think of movement as a gift you can choose to give yourself multiple times during most days.
  • Be flexible. If you can’t make your scheduled workout, do something else: take a walk, run up the stairs, ride your bike to the store, do some yoga.

Myth: The best motivation is to get healthy (your doctor prescribes more exercise), get in shape (fit into that bathing suit), or lose weight (so people will think you look better).
Reality: These “should” motivators rarely work long-term because they are based on vague promises of future improvement, and they do not come from our own choices. Our brains are hardwired to be motivated by what makes us happy right now, and by autonomous choice.

  • Do what feels good.
  • Stop working out in ways that make you feel bad.
  • Pay attention to how even the smallest amounts of physical movement feel, and choose to move in the ways that bring you joy.

Myth: It’s selfish to take time away from my family to work out. I feel guilty about putting my own needs ahead of caring for those I love and getting all my work done.
Reality: Caring for yourself is strategic, not selfish. Taking time to nurture your own sense of well-being and self-care actually fuels you with the energy and positive enthusiasm to take care of family, friends, and business.

  • For one day, just believe that your own self-care is a priority. It supports the roles and goals you care most about. Notice how differently you approach meeting your physical movement needs.
  • Add just one new self-care activity (walking, yoga, dancing) to your schedule at a time. When it feels natural, choose another and add that.

If you need more with these ideas or for some great ideas for movement opportunities, check out my book No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.

Seniors having fun at the park photo available from Shutterstock

3 Strategies to Reframe Your Thinking on Exercise

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Michelle Segar, PhD

Michelle Segar, Ph.D., motivation scientist and author, is the leading authority on what motivates people to choose and maintain physically active lives. Segar is director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan, and chairs the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan’s Communications Committee. She is a sought-after keynote speaker and advises global organizations such as Adidas, Walmart, and PepsiCo. Her expertise has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Prevention, and Oprah. Segar lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband and son. For more information,

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APA Reference
Segar, M. (2018). 3 Strategies to Reframe Your Thinking on Exercise. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Aug 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.