A Faculty of Our Own: Michelle Segar


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color photograph of Michelle Segar
color photograph of Michelle Segar

This article was originally featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Genderscapes, IRWG's annual newsletter.

Michelle Segar fits the description of a “Faculty of Our Own” in more ways than one. Dr. Segar is an Assistant Research Scientist at IRWG and Director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center (SHARP). She earned her PhD in Psychology and Master’s Degrees in Health Behavior/ Health Education (MPH) and Kinesiology (MS) from the University of Michigan. Her research examines what messages and practices help people sustain behavioral changes, like exercise, to optimize motivation and create well-being and health.

Segar describes two pivotal moments as a graduate student that led to her research agenda. As a Graduate Student Instructor Segar taught a Women’s Health course in the Women’s Studies department, along with IRWG faculty Dr. Carol Boyd. The feminist pedagogy she learned there, in particular from feminist scholar bell hooks’s work, has been “foundational for how I approached empowering and educating people in my professional career in behavior change.”

During her kinesiology master’s degree research, she discovered that her study group of cancer survivors had benefited in many ways from exercising during the study. Three months after the study was over, however, Segar was surprised to learn that “pretty much everyone had stopped exercising—and I was shocked, because I had heard them talking about how great exercise was for them.” After asking why they had stopped, the cancer survivors were not making time to exercise because of their work and personal commitments. Segar had an “a-ha” moment and knew that she wanted to research the causes of this disconnect between people’s perceived benefits from exercising and their motivation (or lack of it) to exercise.

photo of book "No Sweat"Her interdisciplinary training in psychology, public health, and kinesiology is reflected in her research interests. Segar focuses not just on health but on issues of time management, life-work balance, and understanding people’s socialization-based beliefs about exercise, sleep, and self-care. Segar’s years of academic research are collected in her recently published, top-selling book, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. Segar states, “No Sweat comes out of my comprehensive study of why people don’t stick with physical activity and why they don’t prioritize their own needs and self-care going back to the 1994 cancer survivors finding from my master’s thesis.” Intriguingly, Segar finds that women resist messages of healthy eating and exercise when it is presented as a way to conform to beauty and thinness standards.

One of the most revolutionary aspects of No Sweat is its focus on reframing exercise away from a common conception that it needs to be unpleasant to “count” and that is should be done to improve health or prevent disease. Women, Segar notes, have a particular difficulty privileging their own self-care in their daily priorities. Instead, both male and female readers are encouraged to find exercise that they enjoy and to put their own self-care, well-being and health at the top of their daily “to do” list as a way to feel better and fuel what they most care about. Finally, directing SHARP allows Segar to draw from the work of other interdisciplinary scholars to think through best practices for health care practices and public policy.

This wide ranging perspective on exercise and motivation has led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to seek Segar’s input on strategies for communicating the Surgeon General’s Walking Call-to-Action. Segar also directs the National Physical Activities Plan’s communications committee, charged with advising the Plan on more persuasive messaging for American people and policy makers. Her current research involves looking at how community-based participatory action research can help low-income urban women of color (who are also mothers) become physically active in ways that are personally meaningful and work within their complex lives. She is also conducting research about how to improve practices within health care to improve behavioral sustainability among patients. 

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