Overweight and inactive, Gina Dyson, 32, thought of herself as fat, slovenly and ugly for most of her life. When you struggle through that mandatory lap around the track in PE, when no one asks you to the prom, when you sit in a pile of empty Hostess wrappers promising yourself it's the last time--feelings of hopelessness grow and grow until its all-consuming.
She tried joining a gym and starting an exercise program, but she just couldnt stick with it. Two years ago things came to a turning point for the university operations manager from Long Beach, California. "I did the most amazing thing. I set a goal for myself."
Dyson signed up for a sprint triathlon and then joined a training group. Crossing the finish line was a milestone that marked a new lifestyle and a completely new way of seeing herself. "With every stroke, pedal and step I started to believe that maybe I was strong, maybe I was worthy, and just maybe, I was beautiful." Dyson has continued competing in triathlons, completing a half Ironman last year and setting her sights for an Ironman in 2008.
Like many women, Dyson initially began exercising to lose weight. But as her motivations changed, exercising became a way of life. What drives her now has more to do with challenging herself and seeing what she's capable of than losing weight. And the best news: Experts say she has a much higher chance of staying active for life because of it.
Beyond Good Looks
While there's nothing wrong with wanting to look better, the problem with using appearance as a primary motivation to exercise is that it doesn't last, researchers say. A 2006 University of Michigan study shows that women who start exercising for body-shape and weight-loss goals alone not only work out less, but also are less likely to stick to it long-term than those who exercise for other reasons.
An appearance-driven motivation, according to Michelle Segar, Ph.D., lead author of the Michigan study, is usually based on cultural pressures to conform to someone else's idea of what's thin or beautiful. "It feels like something you should do and often results in poor long-term adherence. Who needs another should in their lives," says Segar.
And for women whose goal is to achieve some unrealistic body ideal, their efforts usually lead to frustration and then quitting altogether. Some women go to the other extreme: exercising excessively and developing eating disorders and other serious health problems.
"When women discover that wellness, not weight is the key issue, they find long-term satisfaction and enjoyment in exercise," says Margaret Moore, CEO and founder of Wellcoaches Corp., an organization that helps people with motivation issues overcome obstacles toward improving well-being.