The Middle Priority: Why Being Flexible with Exercise Plans Can Help You Better Sustain a Physically Active Life

“High priority” exercise may pressure women, thwarting motivation.

Image Courtesy of Filip Mroz on Unsplash

The message about exercise that women regularly get (from doctors, the media, friends and family) is prescriptive: we must make exercise a top priority because our future health and attractiveness depend on it. That’s a lot of pressure and an almost surefire recipe for failure for most. And, as our research team discovered, this message about exercise flies in the face of what actually makes women happy.

Our new research focuses on what women say makes them feel happy and successful, and how their expectations and beliefs about being active either foster or undermine those feelings. A better understanding of how physical activity actually interacts with women’s daily roles, priorities, and desires could make a real difference in helping women make physical activity part of their daily routine—and feel good doing it.

“High priority” exercise may pressure women, thwarting motivation

We recently published a paper in BMC Public Health entitled Rethinking physical activity communication: using focus groups to understand women’s goals, values, and beliefs to improve public health. In this study, with our colleagues Heather Patrick, Chan L. Thai and April Oh, we conducted eight focus groups among White, Black, and Hispanic women aged 22-49 who either reported a lot or very little physical activity. We first investigated what makes them feel happy and successful in their daily lives, and both groups reported these same factors:

• Connecting with and taking care of other people

• Being relaxed and free of pressures during their leisure time (and doing leisure activities)

• Accomplishing goals (from getting the shopping done to fulfilling career goals) and helping other people do the same

But when we asked these participants what they thought and how they felt about exercise, we found something very interesting, particularly among the women doing very little of it: their beliefs and expectations about exercise actually thwarted the very things that they say make them feel happy and successful.

• They believe that for exercise to “count,” it needs to consist of uncomfortable high-intensity exercise lasting for longer durations like 30-60 minutes. Most don’t like the way this high-intensity activity feels—some thought it was painful, others dreaded the thought of it. Yet, they believed they must do it—thus undermining their desire to be relaxed and free from pressures. Consider the following quote from a woman who was not active:

“You have to do this at this time, and you have to commit to these hours. You have to do this activity. You have to be so good. I feel like it's a lot of pressure for me, with exercise, to perform and do well and commit to that schedule. I can't commit.”

• In general, their definitions of valid exercise were narrow (for example, I must exercise for at least 30 minutes a day and work up a sweat). This made exercise unrealistic to sustain (because life always presents new obstacles to our plans), and prevented women from ever feeling successful about exercise.

The direct conflict between what they believe they should be doing when they exercise and their desire to decompress and renew themselves during leisure time seemed to demotivate low active women, impeding them from successfully adopting and sustaining physically active lives.

Treating exercise as a “Middle priority” facilitates fitting it in. There was one surprising strategy that some women who were exercising a lot use to stop this vicious cycle before it starts. Although it would be logical to think that more active women hold exercise as a high priority, comments from many of our active participants suggested that they actually did not consider it a top priority; they held more flexible views of exercising than their counterparts who were not regularly exercising.

These highly active women appeared to treat exercise as a “middle priority,” leaving room for compromise when schedules and responsibilities got in the way of their planned exercise, as exemplified by the following quote:

“If we have to spend the long nights [helping] my son on a homework assignment, the workout needs to go on the wayside, and so be it….you have give and take…”

As this comment suggests, these active women gave themselves permission to do what they could and felt good about it. The did not beat themselves up when they didn’t get to do their planned or desired physical activity because they knew they would just fit it in another time soon. For example, highly active women told us that it “was not the end of the world” when they couldn’t fit exercise in. They understood how being active benefited their lives, and because of that, they were confident that skipping a planned session was no big deal.

While it might be counter to the more traditional exercise recommendations aimed to achieve specific “doses” of activity (e.g., exercise for 30 minutes), new behavioral science suggests that being flexible toward behavioral goals (e.g., “flexible self-regulation”) may help people better stick with these goals. One newly published study found that “people with greater cognitive flexibility are more likely to use flexible self-regulation, leading to greater physical activity.” The flexibility resulting from task-shifting (e.g., changing days, doing something different) instead of dropping the actual goal (e.g., to stay active) is thought to support the self-regulation that underlies on-going goal pursuit.

Being flexible (rather than rigid) with behavioral plans even seems to help people better manage themselves and even maintain weight loss over time. Peeople who have flexible mindsets are also happier and healthier.

Because physical activity is constantly competing for time against other valued daily goals—many women are already juggling work and family—physical activity might be more seamlessly and consistently fit into a busy life when it can be modified and “flexed” to meet the unique needs of any given day.

People who perceive physical activity as a middle priority might have an easier time negotiating schedule conflicts that arise or switching gears without the additional negativity from judging themselves as failures. This might be considered as a type of behavioral resilience, because resilience more generally is defined as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity.”

Other research has found that individuals who made physical activity an “equal priority” to other goals exercised just as much as those who made it a higher priority than other goals. This study was conducted among adolescents, but it hints at a strategy that might work for all of us. When we don’t feel pressured to hit a specific target to achieve success, we can relax and feel more self-determined (e.g., be in the driver’s seat) about the activities we choose to do. Research shows that feeling self-determined about our exercise is important for motivating it over time.

Ironically, by treating physical activity as a middle, instead of a top, priority we become more likely to sustain physically active lives within the constant ebbs and flows of our daily schedules.

Michelle Segar, PhD, is the author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation can bring you a Lifetime of Fitness and she directs the University of Michigan's Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center.

Jennifer Taber, PhD, is a social psychologist who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University.

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