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Planning for Less Equals Success: The Most Important Strategy for Staying Active This Fall

09/11/2015 12:05pm ET | Updated September 11, 2016
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Fall is a time when the weather changes, schedules change, and responsibilities often increase. "Back to school" mode applies not only to those who are going back to school, or who have to juggle their kids' school schedules with their own workload, but to all of us who suddenly feel compelled to put away our fun summer activities and get back to work.

For a lot of us, "getting serious" means "less time for physical activity," which all too often becomes no time for physical activity. We reason that if we can't do the exact workout we did over the summer, it's not worth doing at all.

As I discuss in my new book, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (Amacom, 2015), this perfectionistic approach to exercise is among the greatest reasons why many people don't sustain physical activity beyond summer. But they're missing a key strategy that can change everything: If your available time is shrinking, shrink your physical activity ambitions and goals.

What? When I share this strategy with my clients, many of them say it feels like cheating. This is a common reaction that is a direct result of the last 30 years of marketing, education, and recommendations about physical activity that have specifically taught us to exercise in the "right" way and aim for a specific, inflexible target.

But guess what? Life changes and stuff happens. Believing that our physical activity plans should always be the same sets us up to be inactive during the inevitable life transitions, or during busy times that accompany seasonal change.

If your exercise plans tend to fall to the wayside along with the autumn leaves, I invite you to experiment with a different mindset. See if planning to do less physical activity this season might, in fact, help you do more.

Try these two strategies, individually or in combination, to make sure you keep moving this fall:

Plan for Less: Start by accepting the nitty gritty of your current life context, including increases in responsibilities and scheduling needs. Take 7 minutes with your smart phone or planner and consider a realistic plan to experiment with. Your objective is to continue doing activities you enjoy -- just a little less of them. For example, if you've been walking 4 to 6 days per week for 30 minutes or taking two spinning classes per week during the summer, aim to stick with 50 percent of that during the next few weeks. If that's still too much, don't give up. Just keep shrinking your goals until you hit your sweet spot.

Discover Hidden Opportunities to Move (OTMs): If you can't even imagine having any structured physical activity or exercise in your schedule right now, then I invite you to try a life-changing adventure: seek out as many small opportunities to move as you can during the day. Add a few minutes more physical activity by taking the stairs to a colleague's office instead of riding the elevator, or walking your kids to school instead of driving. Be aware that the time you spend walking around the grocery counts as walking, and count that too. Start to notice the positive benefits of moving even a little more, and pat yourself on the back for giving to yourself in this way. (To download a free "It's Your Move Game" poster to inspire and help you to follow this strategy, click here.)

Michelle Segar is a University of Michigan motivation scientist and the author of #1 Best Seller in Exercise and Fitness on Amazon, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. To download a free chapter excerpt, "Escaping the Vicious Cycle of Failure": www.MichelleSegar.com

Follow Michelle on Twitter @MichelleSegar