Michelle Segar (RC, 1988), PhD/MPH/MS

This will be the last time

Precision. Few qualities are more important to the advancement of science. Precision also is important to the advancement of our brains. Especially when it comes to achieving lasting change in eating and exercise behaviors.

Take the terms “joy” and “choice.” For award-winning translational researcher and health coach Michelle Segar, PhD/MPH/MS, these are the precise words that set the foundation for her fresh and brain-based alternative to a longstanding paradigm of behavior change she describes as “simplistic, outdated, and misguided for many.”

“The ways we’ve been taught to change our exercise and eating habits are punitive and restrictive in a way that primes us to boomerang away from that which we said we wanted,” Segar says. “We’ve been set up to rebel. Part of the reason we self-sabotage in this way is that we haven’t learned how to successfully navigate and bypass this innately human, yet non-optimal response.”

While planning will always play a role in creating changes in exercise and intentional eating, most of us haven’t learned the important — yet simple and precise — ways to manage the unexpected, in-the-moment challenges to our best-laid plans, “even if it’s as simple as not feeling motivated, or wanting to rebel,” Segar says.

(Hatchette Go, 2022)

Lose it

In her new book, The Joy Choice (Hatchette Go, 2022), Segar delves into emerging decision science and explores what motivates the consistent choices that power sustainable change.

The Joy Choice acknowledges our complex days, and it helps us create the conditions and belief systems necessary to have a more symbiotic relationship between exercise and healthy eating with our daily roles and goals,” she says.

Segar warns against the common practice of lumping healthy eating and exercise with other changes in behavior.

“These are the two behaviors people use to try to lose weight,” she says. “And having weight loss as the primary reason for behavior change embeds many negative and shameful life experiences. New theories about eating and exercise explain how these negative memories and experiences get intertwined with our feelings about healthy eating and exercise. You can see how that sets us up to fail from the get-go. It’s not that losing weight is inherently bad, but it may not be the most strategic ‘why’ to focus on when we’re trying to change our eating and exercise behaviors in sustainable ways.”

We need to lose the conventional ‘lose it’ mentality when it comes to healthy eating and exercise, Segar says. The book illuminates an alternate, science-based approach that supports long-term success.

“There’s a theory about joy by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett,” says Segar, “that proposes when our momentary experience aligns with our identity, we feel joy. I purposely selected that word because of its deeply moving and transformative power. When we pick ‘the joy choice,’ the perfect imperfect option, it not only helps us tend to our own self-care needs (keeping us on the path of lasting change), it permits us to tend to the needs of the people and projects we care most about.”

UnTRAP yourself

Segar’s prime audience includes those people who initiate change with tremendous motivation but who quickly abandon the plan in the face of such typical decision disruptors as temptation, rebellion, accommodation, and perfection.

The Joy Choice was selected by the prestigious Next Big Idea Club as a nominee for its Spring second session. Access five key insights for joy.

The traps are so pervasive in daily life – and so familiar to us – that Segar uses the acronym TRAP to help readers “name and tame” these common impediments we face to our best-laid plans.

“If we’re not using precise terms for what we’re challenged by or what we hope to do, we can’t be as precise and effective in the tactics and strategies we choose,” she says.

“Escaping our decision TRAPs and the idea of making a ‘joy choice’ might sound good in theory, but we also need a method to implement these ideas in our real lives.”

That’s why she created a decision tool to operationalize decision-making in ways that science suggests could support our executive functions, ie., the brain’s innate system for pivoting and problem-solving in the moment.

“There’s an exciting emerging body of science about the role of our executive functions in our health-related decisions and weight,” Segar says.

Pop that plan!

Segar created a tool out of this science aiming to support three of our brain’s executive functions – working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility (what she calls flexible thinking) – to strategically navigate our ever-changing “choice points.”

“By supporting our executive functioning at the moment we need it we will be more likely to follow through with our greater health-related goals,” she says

Segar created a decision tool that aims to support our executive functions in synergistic ways. She calls it POP: Pause, Open up your options and play, and Pick the joy choice.

Most approaches try to “boost” executive functions via online or lab-based computer games, treating the functions in isolation via simplistic tasks. The baseline, so-called “brain trainer” Lumosity and “go/no go” trainings may show some effect in the the lab, but don’t tend to translate into improvements in the real world, Segar notes. So she decided to do things differently. She created a decision tool that aims to support our executive functions in synergistic ways. She calls it POP: Pause, Open up your options and play, and Pick the joy choice.

“Instead of computer games in a lab, we need to teach people how to improvise in their crazy hectic lives,” she says. “POP is easy to remember (supporting working memory) and guides you to pivot when you need to (supporting cognitive flexibility). Because it’s about personal choice and options, and no longer about ‘no go’ we flip the tired all-or-nothing thinking paradigm on its head and shift from needing to ‘inhibit’ ourselves to playing with the alternative options that might work. You ‘pop’ your plan, literally and metaphorically, so you can create an alternative when your plan unexpectedly goes awry.”

Imagine you plan to jog for 60 minutes but an obstacle arises in your schedule. Using POP, says Segar, one may decide to walk for 15 minutes as an option.

“The stakes are low because it’s the perfect imperfect option that lets you do something instead of nothing,” Segar says, “keeping you in sync with the things you care most about.”

The perfect imperfect choice

Segar’s POP acronym and decision tool helps us avoid the self-sabotage of the all-or-nothing thinking that has long characterized our past approaches to trying to make changes in eating and exercise. This new approach is designed to be easy to remember, fun, and spark curiosity (a motivating positive emotion) about the possible alternatives.

“The stakes are low because it’s the perfect imperfect option that lets you do something instead of nothing,” Segar says, “keeping you in sync with the things you care most about.”

“POP is inherently flexible; we can use these same mental steps for many types of challenges that arise,” Segar says.

Picking the “joy choice” is the tool’s grand finale, she says.

“We have no choice but to deal with the urgencies and priorities of daily life,” she says. “So if we have a positive strategy that can flex with the ever-changing needs of our families and work, there’s a better chance we’ll make the choices that consistently support our greater eating and exercise goals, even if we do so in perfectly imperfect ways.

“What we’re doing is redefining success in a way that works with rather than against our daily needs and priorities, helping more of us be successful and feel our best. And isn’t that a joy?”

Excerpt from: "Episode 50: Making ‘the Joy Choice,’ featuring Michelle Segar, PhD/MPH/MS"
Author: Deborah Holdship, Published: June 24, 2022
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