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The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 104: Michelle Segar Discusses Her Book “No Sweat” and the Importance of Being a Physically Fit Leader

December 30, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Michelle Segar, Ph.D., MPH, Michelle Segar, is the bestselling author of “No Sweat” and a sustainable behavior change scientist. She currently directs the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center (SHARP). Segar’s comprehensive, research-based approach to creating sustainable behavior change has made her a sought-after speaker, trainer, and consultant. In today’s episode of the Be EPIC podcast, Segar discusses the importance of physical fitness, maintaining motivation, and her book.

Episode Transcript


0:00:08.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today. I have with me today Michelle Segar, who is the Director of the University of Michigan's Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center, also known as SHARP. She has four degrees from the University of Michigan, including her PhD, and she is a sustainable behavior change scientist, and she's the author of No Sweat, which is a book that I read, and it's the reason I contacted her, because I really like the book and I read it months ago, and I still remember it, and I actually changed some of my behavior as a result. So I'm gonna share a little bit about that. But thank you so much, Michelle, for joining me today.

0:01:16.8 Michelle Segar: Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to our conversation.

0:01:20.6 Matt Waller: Well, I have thought for a long time, and I know I've mentioned this to you earlier, that some of the best leaders I know personally are also very fit. Even the Chancellor of our university is extremely fit, Chancellor Steinmetz. But many of the local CEOs in Northwest Arkansas, like the CEO of Walmart, and many other people that I know that are great leaders are also very physically fit, and I try to exercise myself. But the values of our college are excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality. I think a value I hold or a belief I hold, is that if you really want to be excellent, you probably need to be physically fit. It doesn't mean you need to be able to do a triathlon, but you need to be fit to some degree. Now, there are certainly exceptions to that, and I know people that are exceptions, and at various points in my life, I've probably been an exception both directions, but...

0:02:23.0 Matt Waller: So I read your book, and one change that I made is I started riding my bike to work and back every day, not for exercise, but for enjoyment. We've got these beautiful paved trails in Northwest Arkansas, truly beautiful, and riding home after a stressful day through the woods, it's just so rejuvenating to me. I absolutely love it. And sometimes I have meetings in Bentonville 25, 30 miles from here, I ride up in the morning, I have my meetings there and... All day, and then ride back. I don't think I could do it in one shot, but give me a break for about 10 hours and I could do it. But again, having that two hours of going up, it's just so fun to me. But that was one of the things that your book led me to do, and that is to go ahead and do what's enjoyable. I also enjoy lifting weights. I don't wanna lift weights every day, but I do enjoy it. But your book, No Sweat, which I would recommend to anyone wanting to get fit, really is interesting. I'd like you to tell me a little bit about how... What made you decide to write that book, No Sweat?

0:03:42.1 Michelle Segar: Oh, sure. Well, first of all, it's so thrilling to always hear how people read the book and hear the messages and figure out ways in their own lives that they can apply the insights that are there. And the notion that you chose to ride to work and you're calling it this fun thing that you're choosing to do, but don't forget, it's also transportation, so it hits a couple of different goals in a really nice way, it integrates the need for transportation with this energy, mood-boosting activity. And so, in essence, you could think of, if you wanna justify the time for being active, you can say, "Well, it might not take this long to drive, but I get to leverage this time to commute to my meeting or work, and have it double count as physical activity." So that's just wonderful. You get to feel really good about leveraging that time.

0:04:44.4 Michelle Segar: I wrote the book because I had been working with a system of sustainable behavior change focused on physical activity, as well as self care more generally for 20 years. And I'd been working with individuals, I'd been in graduate school multiple times, iterating between research and academics and working with people, I was seeing again and again how people would say the same things or the same places in the same way, and it became very clear to me that there's this... That it was a systematized methodology, and that if I wrote a book about it, then it could really help other people do what I do with individuals and the research that I conduct at the university, and so...

0:05:31.1 Michelle Segar: But what made me get into this whole topic, I think, is more interesting. And I was getting my first master's degree in kinesiology, and we were doing a randomized trial with cancer survivors, looking to see if regular physical activity would help the group that exercise reduce in depression and anxiety compared to the group that didn't exercise. And that was the promise, the hypothesis that it would. And so we found that, but fortunately, part of our study design was to call the participants back into the lab and do focus groups, collect qualitative data. And what we found was that despite the surveys showing that people really did improve with exercise, and despite the people smiling and laughing when they were talking about exercise, that almost everyone stopped when the study had ended 10 to 12 weeks before, I don't remember the specific week.

0:06:33.7 Michelle Segar: And I was astounded. So I asked these participants, "Why did you stop exercising?" And they said, "Oh, Michelle, I work, I have a family, I have to take my kids here and there, and I have aging parents, and I volunteer at this place." And what became very clear to me in those focus groups, and I was in my mid... I don't remember how old, but mid 20s, more or less, and I thought, "Wow, if people who had faced a life-threatening illness like cancer felt comfortable committing to our study to exercise but not for their own self-care, then we have a real problem in society," and I decided that I was gonna solve it. So my whole career trajectory has been in service of solving that problem, and so No Sweat reflected the solution, the system that I developed that I wanted to share with people.

0:07:31.3 Matt Waller: One study, and I don't remember where this occurs in your book, that really stood out to me, there was one chapter in there where you talked about a study where you had people walking. One group was told they were walking for exercise, and one group was told they were walking for fun. Would you mind telling me a little bit about that?

0:07:52.2 Michelle Segar: Sure. That's a study I talk about a lot when I'm discussing the impact of framing. And as someone in education, I assume you know about all the research on how we frame things for students or how we frame work-related tasks for professionals, how that dramatically influence the experience people have about doing those tasks. And so this study is about walking, and they did exactly what you said. They told one group, the one mile... The same one mile walk was exercise, and then a randomized other group of people were told it was fun. And what they found was that the people who were told the walk was exercise ended the one mile walk in a worse mood than the people who were told it was fun. And the funny part about this is that the people who were told it was exercise also ate more M&M's afterwards. It kind of shows that it's taxing if you... The terms you use and the way you think about exercise, it makes the exercise taxing, and of course you're gonna be in a worse mood, and of course you're gonna wanna eat junk.

0:09:02.5 Matt Waller: So just to build on that just a little further, you told the people afterwards they could take as many M&M's as they wanted, right?

0:09:11.4 Michelle Segar: Now, that wasn't my study, but I think they did say that. I think they said, "You can have as many as you want."

0:09:17.0 Matt Waller: And that gets to this notion of ego depletion, where their self-control was depleted as a result of having to do the exercise, whereas it wasn't when they were doing it for fun. I thought that was quite interesting.

0:09:32.4 Michelle Segar: It is. It's fascinating.

0:09:34.8 Matt Waller: So, Michelle, I remember in your book, you had a number of things... A lot of times people think, "Well, for exercise to count, you've gotta really be working hard, to the point of being out of breath for a long time and sweating and that kind of thing." What's wrong with that logic?

0:09:57.7 Michelle Segar: Well, I would refer to that as being passé. That's what we were taught in the '70s, early... A few decades ago it was what we were taught. "No pain, no gain, do it till it hurts." But the reality is, is that most people will not stick with a life-long physical activity practice if what they do hurts, if it doesn't feel good. And the other thing that's true is that if you don't like it, then you won't... Most people, once you get past the motivation bubble, once you... New Year's Eve and you're committed, you're so committed, or you leave your doctor's office and you're so committed, that's the motivation bubble. But two weeks out, between your dread of what you're doing, because it's too hard and you don't like it, or just life, your bubble, motivation bubble bursts, and there's no momentum at all.

0:10:52.2 Michelle Segar: And so what we now know is that everything counts when it comes to physical movement. And where people get caught up is because, when I said it was a passé belief, unfortunately, it's still a very dominant belief, and people still believe, despite having lots of public announcements over the last couple of decades that it doesn't have to kill you, it doesn't have to be hard, people don't believe it. Even educated people don't believe walking counts as exercise. And we're starting to turn this ship around, and the research shows that it's absolutely true. Anything is always better than nothing. And in fact, this anything is better than nothing mantra is a great way for people who are not regularly active to get into activity, to not feel like they have to aim to this grandiose level of success. Instead, it's, "Wow, I want to do this activity in a way that I can sustain it for the rest of my life. That means I'm gonna start small."

0:11:56.2 Matt Waller: Well, I've read something somewhere, I can't remember now, about if you're running marathons, there's nothing wrong with it, but you're not gonna probably be doing it when you're 70. Some people will, but very few. Most people are gonna have lots of problems if they run marathons until they're 70.

0:12:14.8 Michelle Segar: And it's okay, because some people really love that. It's really okay to exercise in that way, but research shows, in general, when you push yourself really hard or past the ventilatory threshold, which is when you're like... Like that. It doesn't feel good, and if it doesn't feel good, you're not gonna keep it up, so you kind of have to assess on an individual level, am I someone who hates that feeling, or do I love it and I crave it? And that's how you have to decide how, what part it's going to play in your life, or it could be like a pie chart. On Sundays, I'm gonna do it this way, and on other days, I'm gonna take this quarter of the pie and do it that way.

0:13:00.6 Matt Waller: That's a great point. I know when I first started riding my bike to work and back everyday, when I would hit certain hills, I would remember it, right? I'd remember it the whole day. Now, sometimes I ride to work, I'm like... It's like when I drive to work, I don't remember sometimes what I did, you know, it becomes second nature, it's like I don't remember the hills.

0:13:22.1 Michelle Segar: Right, that's great.

0:13:24.2 Matt Waller: Michelle, you talk about using learning goals to get intrinsic motivation, persistence and resilience as a strategy. What do you mean by that?

0:13:37.2 Michelle Segar: Well, there's a couple of different lines of research. There's Locke and Latham and, and then there's Carol Dweck's work in different areas, education and work, and they call them different things, but in general, I like to think of one thing as a learning goal versus an achievement goal, and an achievement goal is where really, "There's the bullseye, I have to hit the bullseye, I'm gonna focus all my energies around hitting the bullseye." And if you don't hit the bullseye, the fallout is not gonna be... It's not gonna be very good. And with a learning goal, maybe it would be framed as, "Wow, I'd really like to get better at shooting that target, and it's gonna take me a while, and if I don't do it so well, there's not gonna be fallout, 'cause I'm learning how to do it. The stakes are not high." Now, in some situations, having achievement goals has been shown to maybe be better than learning goals in some situations, however, the research does show that when you have a complex situation like learning how to integrate and sustain physical activity in your life, that's a very complex endeavor, that having a learning goal is more adaptive.

0:14:54.7 Michelle Segar: Think about anything where you wanna have a life-long relationship with, whether it's skiing or being married, if you expect your spouse, your relationship to be 100% happy all the time, you're gonna get pretty disappointed after 10 years because like most things, long-term relationships of any kind, including our professions, our relations with our kids, our spouses, our exercise, they ebb and flow. So if we have a learning mindset that enables us to kind of bend with the wind and it creates a type of a psychological resilience, and COVID is a great example of that when it comes to exercise, with COVID, gyms closed and people could not go to the gym, and the people who loved to go to the gym and so... "Oh no, what am I to do? It's my happiness, it's my joy, or I just, I'm compulsive and that's what I have to do." A lot of people got pretty depressed because they couldn't do what they wanted to do, but the people who could flex, be a little flexible and say, "Okay, I can't go do my workout in person that I love, in the class of people that I enjoy being with, but I could do this, I could do this instead." And so that notion of being flexible is just a key part of sticking with a lifelong practice of physical activity.

0:16:26.8 Matt Waller: Yeah, that's a good point. Michelle, in your book, you talk about people not giving themselves permission to make time for exercise, it seems like exercise is one of the first things to get hit. It reminds me a little bit of marketing in a company, when things start going bad in the economy, it's easy to cut marketing to some degree, it's the worst thing to do, but it tends to happen, and similarly, when your life gets busy or new things come in or maybe problems occur. I know if I feel overwhelmed by some decisions I'm having to make, it's harder for me to go exercise, but would you talk about that a little bit?

0:17:12.5 Michelle Segar: Sure, that's kind of the hidden problem, so a lot of people come to the table or come to the book and say, I just don't like exercising and I wanna figure out how to get motivated, and that's the first half of the book, but actually that's an easy problem to solve, the more challenging issue is giving ourselves permission to carve out time in our busy lives for something that is to take care of ourself, and on a deeper level, exercise is a self-care behavior, so it is... When things get busy, it does become very easy to say, "Oh, this is for my self-care and my self-care is at the bottom of the list right now, 'cause all these other things are on the top." Part of the conversation about creating a sustainable physical activity or any other self-care behavior, like a healthy diet or meditating or getting enough sleep, you have to acknowledge whether or not you feel that your own self-care is an essential thing or an optional thing, and really this gets back to your initial introductory comment about CEOs and I would assume that part of the reason many CEOs do regularly exercise is because they understand that that act is actually fueling their mind, body and spirit to be the best leaders they can be.

0:18:45.1 Michelle Segar: To have the most energy, insight, innovation. And so that's the way we should be thinking about self-care, whether it's sleep or physical activity, and so I think our society is in a shift with this too, Arianna Huffington's Thrive Global. There are really large and wide and important initiatives that are trying to get people to think in a different way about the value, the very high value of taking time for self-care, both for your own daily quality of life, which of course is what is going to fuel or not fuel the things you care about, whether it's your children or your job or whatever.

0:19:31.9 Matt Waller: Well, that's a good point, but it's nice to learn those kind of things, but you do, you realize... Everyone's gotta sleep. Everyone's gotta exercise. Everyone has to eat. I became vegan, a year and two months ago because of health reasons, and it really worked, which my physician questioned whether or not it would work for this issue, and I think... I don't know why it was so easy for me to switch to that, but I also take pleasure in doing things the right way, so I know I've got to sleep, I know I've got to eat well, these kind of things, I actually find pleasure in just doing things like that, but anyway, well, Michelle, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me. And thank you for writing your book, No Sweat, that was really fun to read and like I said, I remember it after reading it, some books, I don't remember, [chuckle] but you did a nice job on that, so I look forward to...

0:20:33.0 Michelle Segar: Thank you.

0:20:33.1 Matt Waller: Did you say you're writing another book?

0:20:34.8 Michelle Segar: Yes, I just... In the beginning process. Yes. Yes.

0:20:38.9 Matt Waller: Oh, good. Well, I look forward to reading it. Please let me know when you finish it.

0:20:41.6 Michelle Segar: I will and thank you for having me and your interest in talking about these ideas. Thanks a lot.

0:20:50.9 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be Epic podcast from the Walton College, you can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC podcast one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast and now be epic.


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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