You join a gym with the intention of improving your fitness and losing weight, only to lose motivation and stop going within a matter of weeks. Sound familiar? You’re not alone; 67 percent of us have gym memberships that we never use. But for women, focusing on exercise that makes them happy, rather than focusing on exercise intensity, may be key to maintaining motivation for physical activity.

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Researchers suggest that being more relaxed about physical activity may increase women’s motivation to exercise.

This is the conclusion of a new study published in the journal BMC Public Health.

The research included 40 women aged between 22 and 49 years. Of these, 29 were deemed inactive (defined as exercising for under 120 minutes each week), while 11 were considered active (defined as exercising for at least 120 minutes weekly).

Study co-author Michelle Segar, of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research Policy Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and colleagues asked the women what makes them feel happy and successful.

Additionally, the women were asked about their beliefs and attitudes toward exercise, and the researchers looked at how these conformed with their measures of happiness and success.

“A new understanding of what really motivates women might make an enormous difference in their ability to successfully incorporate physical activity into their daily routine – and have fun doing it,” notes Segar.

The researchers found that the elements required for happiness and success were the same for both groups of women.

The women reported that spending time with family, friends, and even pets is important for happiness and success, as is helping other people.

Feeling relaxed and free from pressures during leisure time was another key factor for happiness and success for the women, as was accomplishing goals, ranging from completing a grocery shop to getting a promotion.

Interestingly, however, for women who were inactive, the researchers found that their beliefs about physical activity counteracted their ingredients for happiness.

For example, the inactive women believed that for exercise to be “valid,” it had to be intense, which negated their need to be relaxed in their leisure time.

What is more, women who were inactive said they felt “pressured” to exercise in order to improve their health or to lose weight, which thwarts their desire to be free from pressure during leisure time.

“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,” one woman reported. “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.”

These perceived expectations about physical activity stop inactive women from reaching their exercise goals, the team notes, and reaching goals is one of their requirements for happiness and success.

The direct conflict between what these low-active women believe they should be doing when they exercise, and their desire to decompress and renew themselves during leisure time, demotivates them.

Their beliefs about what exercise should consist of and their past negative experiences about what it feels like actually prevents them from successfully adopting and sustaining physically active lives.”

Michelle Segar

According to Segar and colleagues, conventional beliefs about physical activity have fueled misperceptions about exercise requirements.

“We’ve all been socialized to exercise and be physically active for the last 30 years,” notes Segar.

“The traditional recommendation we’ve learned to believe is that we should exercise at a high intensity for at least 30 minutes, for the purpose of losing weight or improving our health. Even though there are newer recommendations that permit lower-intensity activity in shorter durations most people don’t know or even believe it.”

She adds that this traditional information may have helped a small number of individuals, but for the population as a whole, it has failed to boost physical activity.

“This traditional approach to exercising might actually harm exercise motivation. Our study shows that this exercise message conflicts with and undermines the very experiences and goals most women have for themselves,” says Segar.

So, what can be done to increase women’s motivation to exercise? According to the researchers, women with low physical activity should perhaps take note of the attitudes to exercise reported by highly active women.

Women who were highly active said that it “was not the end of the world” if they didn’t make it to the gym now and again, and they did not place exercise as one of their highest priorities. This more relaxed approach to physical activity might increase the motivation to exercise.

There are important implications from this study on how we can help women better prioritize exercise in their day-to-day life.

We need to re-educate women [that] they can move in ways that will renew instead of exhaust them, and more effectively get the message across that any movement is better than nothing. To increase motivation to be physically active, we need to help women to want to exercise instead of feeling like they should do it.”

Michelle Segar

Learn why some people fail to respond to exercise.