Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Living and Working Better”
Millions of people around the world have attempted to lose weight and keep it off, as well as incorporate healthy exercise into their lives in a sustainable way. And many have found it far more difficult to continue those healthy behaviors than they would have imagined. An estimated 45 million Americans go on a diet each year, and Americans spend $33 billion each year on weight-loss products. Studies show that while diets can generate some marked initial results, most diets, regardless of the type, fail to support real change, and the desired effects disappear after a year.
Why is it so very challenging to sustain healthy behaviors that we believe are good for us, and even feel good to engage in? And why do we revert back to our old ways so quickly, even when we believe (and physically feel) that those old patterns are bad for us?
To learn more about how to stop negative cycles of ineffective dieting and exercise, I caught up with Dr. Michelle Segar. Segar is an award-winning, NIH-funded researcher at the University of Michigan with almost thirty years of study on how to help people adopt healthy behaviors in ways that can survive the complexity and unpredictability of the real world. In her latest book, The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise, Segar explains that much of what we’ve been taught about changing our behavior is simplistic, outdated and misguided for many of us. She shares a fresh, brain-based solution that breaks the rules of behavior change so we can finally change our behavior for good.
A sought-after speaker and trainer, Segar is frequently interviewed in major media outlets such as The New York Times, NPR, Prevention, Fast Company, Self, Real Simple, Women’s Health, CNN, Newsy and The Wall Street Journal. Segar’s work is widely recognized, and she has served as the inaugural chair of the United States National Physical Activity Plan’s Communication Committee, an adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services, a speaker for the World Health Organization, and former director of the University of Michigan’s Sports, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center. She speaks and consults with organizations including Kaiser Permanente, Walmart, American Telemedicine Association, Business Group on Health, Anytime Fitness, Adidas, Google and The Permanente Medical Group and has advised companies designing AI and other digital and coaching approaches for patient and consumer health.
Here’s what Segar shares:
Kathy Caprino: In your new book, you talk about needing a new story of behavior change – why is that?
Michelle Segar: Because the old story of behavior change not only hasn’t worked for most of us – it actually sets us up to fail.
For years and years, we’ve been given so many types of behavior change strategies that are supposed to work, and we are assured they will work. But for most of us, these prescriptive strategies, programs and approaches just don’t work, no matter how many times we try. And rather than consider that there might actually be something wrong with the many strategies that have failed us—again and again and again—we blame ourselves: we’re just too lazy, we lack self-control, we’re not fit enough.
What people don’t realize is that the real villains of that old change story are hidden from us. We don’t recognize them because they’re actually disguised as the change saviors: the strategies and programs that we need to bring us lasting change. And how can we blame these saviors when everyone tells us we are dependent upon them for our ultimate success?
Here’s the truth that could finally free us to succeed: Our failure to achieve lasting changes is due to the inherent limitations in the behavior change strategies and approaches we’ve been told are the tactics we need to succeed.
Caprino: Are you saying that most every change strategy we’ve been taught over the years are “bad” or highly ineffective?
Segar: No, not at all. The issue is that many of these strategies are just not workable for many people. And these tend to be the people with the most complex lives and overlapping responsibilities, who go to work, who carry the mental load for managing the household, who are dealing with aging parents. The popular strategies assume constants and predictable circumstances, yet most of our lives are far from predictable. So, there’s a mismatch between many popular behavior-change strategies and the complex days most people live.
Caprino: Can you give us an example of a common mismatch?
Segar: Yes. Right now, for example, let’s look at one of the most popular behavior change strategies: habit formation. Habit formation is one of the most popular behavior-change strategies because it offers the promise that we can reduce our mental load by putting our healthy choices on autopilot—we just do them without even having to think about it. But while habit formation is great for the simple behaviors like remembering to floss your teeth at night, by its very nature, it can’t survive within the dynamic and unpredictable daily circumstances that surround complex behaviors like eating and exercise.
Caprino: Can you explain more on that?
Segar: Typically, habit formation is discussed as a three-part process: cue, behavior, feel-good reward. Habit formation requires precision. There’s not that much that can disrupt the habit loop for flossing, and this simple process predictably occurs in the bathroom, at the same time of day, with few or no distractions.
Think about how vastly different eating and exercise are from flossing and the complexity of trying to make these choices across home and work. At multiple points on any given day, our eating and exercise plans interact with the changing demands of our daily schedules, our work, and the needs of family, pets and other loved ones. These noisy needs alone play havoc with creating the cues habit formation depends on.
Now add the negative feelings and memories that many of us carry around related to eating and exercise—shame, self-consciousness, frustration. All of these combine to brand healthy eating and exercise in negative ways in our brain. But habit formation depends on positive experiences as the reward that reinforces the target behavior’s habit loop. No reward means no reinforcement for the loop.
So that’s an example of how a strategy like habit formation can be a mismatch with our true circumstances and experiences. Like other popular strategies, habit formation is based on assumptions that are rarely discussed.
Caprino: For those of us who can’t depend on habit formation to create lasting changes in healthy eating and exercise, what can we depend on?
Segar: We can engage in what I refer to as “rethink, reframe, and rechoose.”
Rethink: First and foremost, we need to rethink how we think about making changes in behavior. We need to toss out the years of advice and rules we’ve been following and make room for a new story of behavior change that is based on the latest science instead of comfortable conventions. We start by breaking down the all-or-nothing thinking that keeps taking us off the path of lasting change. It’s time to replace “there’s a ‘right’ way to do it” (for eating better or exercising more) with “something is better than nothing.” This is easier said than done but transforming this belief system is truly possible. To take this idea and turn it into a reality, we begin by reframing.
Reframe: We can reframe how we view the unanticipated conflicts that arise to our eating or exercise plans. Instead of conflicts, let’s consider them as choice points—as true opportunities to choose.
Almost every day, our best-laid eating and exercise plans encounter challenges and conflicts, creating choice points—the moments when we have to choose between eating the food we’d planned or the more tempting one that is in front of us, or between skipping the gym and continuing to work for another hour, or taking a break for a fifteen-minute walk and making more progress emptying our inbox. What we do at our choice points ultimately determines whether or not we stay consistent with our eating and exercise goals over time. Once we reframe this influential moment, we are free to make new and different choices, or rechoose.
Rechoose: The new story of behavior change turns the old one on its head. Instead of trying for precision and hitting a bullseye, we choose the perfect imperfect option. Rather than aiming for an ideal that we can rarely achieve, we open up our options, play with the possibilities, and select the perfect imperfect option that lets us do something instead of nothing, keeping us on the path of lasting change.
Caprino: Can you explain more about the “perfect imperfect option”?
Segar: That’s the behavior-change strategy that actually matches the conditions of our real lives. It’s the option—and there’s likely more than one for every choice point—that works with our daily contexts, not against them. It lets us stay true to the spirit of our eating and exercise goals and also meet the needs of our real lives: family, friends, and work. Once we are free of the shoulds and rules that have been setting us up to fail, we can finally get curious, creative, and playful in solving the unexpected challenges we face in the moment to our healthy eating and exercise plans.
What I’m advocating in my book is getting off the automation treadmill of habit formation and strict routines that most of us can’t sustain. Then we can begin to harness our innate mental prowess and awareness—our mental technology for making the strategic choices that let us stay the path while still managing the other meaningful aspects of our daily lives.
This often means not doing exactly what we planned, and that’s okay! In fact, it’s often preferable. Believe it or not, mounting research suggests that being flexible and aiming for imperfection—not trying to do it right—better drives the choices that favor consistent healthy eating and exercise.
When we choose behavior-change strategies that match the realities of our daily lives, we set ourselves up for sustainable success—and that’s why I call it the Joy Choice.