While women may equally ‘value’ healthy aging in the long-run, it’s their daily quality of life that may motivate them to stick with exercise routines. Simply put, immediate payoffs are more motivating to sustaining behavior change than the long-term promise of “health.”

In Rebranding exercise: closing the gap between values and behavior, Michelle Segar and colleagues from the University of Michigan (disclosure: my beloved alma mater) describe the state of women and chronic illness, and the difficulty in sustaining physical activity especially in middle age. “While a number of interventions can help individuals successfully initiate an exercise program, most interventions have failed to show that the new lifestyle is maintained,” Segar et. al. observe.

This paper analyzes the hierarchical structure of personal goals — from the “superordinate goal” of quality of life, down to a “focal goal” of decreasing stress, and finally a subordinate goal of, say, walking 5 days a week. This is based on Carver and Scheier’s theory of self-regulation (more on which can be found here).

But despite health as being a broadly-embraced social and personal value, research shows that health and weight focused exercise goals haven’t produced optimal results for sustained motivation in exercising. This study aimed to investigate the relationship between values, goals and sustained exercise over a year among 226 women, age 40-60. The sample was drawn from an employee pool of 843 employees.

Seven exercise goal categories emerged from this analysis: Healthy Aging (e.g., pain-free old age), Current Health (e.g., lower cholesterol, healthy lifestyle), Weight/Appearance (e.g., lose weight, feel better about appearance), How I Look and Feel, Quality of Life (e.g., sleep better, feel centered), About Myself (e.g., positive feelings about self), Mixed (e.g., “serving God,” other aspects that fell outside other 6 categories). Ultimately, the researchers eliminated the How I Look and Feel, Quality of Life, and About Myself categories due to their small sample sizes.

Participation in exercise was highest among women focused on the Quality of Life goals – who exercised significantly more (25% more) than those with the Current Health goals or Healthy Aging goals.

That finding is significant — and worrisome, the researchers say, because only a small proportion of women reported quality-of-life goals versus Current Health or Healthy Aging. Thus, the message is that women haven’t been socialized to consider exercise as an effective way to enhance the quality of their daily lives.

The researchers believe this is the first study to assess the content of midlife women’s superordinate exercise goals and look at which of the goals are most valued and predictive of greater exercise participation over time.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: The recommendation of this study is to “rebrand exercise” to socialize people to understand that sustained exercise enhances daily quality of life. It’s not about long-term benefits that may be achieved months and years off. It’s about The Now.

Public health messages have emphasized those longer-term objectives of “health” and “healthy aging.” But, call us what you will — an ADD society, instant gratification addicts, turbocharged overworked-and-stressed mobile phone tribes — we won’t adopt positive sustained health behaviors until we ‘get’ that they will benefit us, like, immediately.

The 2011 Edelman Health Barometer (EHB) data has recently hit my desk and we’ll be reporting out the findings this month. This “Rebranding Exercise” study results reinforces one of the EHB findings: that there is a knowledge-action gap in health. Stay tuned for more on that here in Health Populi, on the Edelman 2011 Health Barometer website, and follow #EHB2011 on Twitter for ongoing discussions.

Thanks to Michelle and her team for this enlightening study. (PS: Go Blue!)