Question of the Day: I Hate to Exercise! What Should I Do?

(Or, I Don’t Have Time or It Doesn’t Work or … )

Photo by Andres Ayrton on

This is today’s question to spur reflection and provide a moment for you to get present with yourself. I will follow it with an example from my own life or an experience shared with me. You may want to contemplate the question or journal on it before reading on — the question may mean something different to you than the way it’s intended, which is perfectly okay!

Do you have an aversion to exercise? Lack the time or energy to tug on the leggings at the end of (or beginning of) a long day? Tell yourself you “need to go for a walk, but…”/”should go to the gym, but…”/”have to start that fitness plan, but…?”

You likely have very legitimate reasons why you haven’t started or falter in your fitness and exercise program. So let’s look at those reasons and reflect on the messages you’re telling yourself. What are your “buts”? List them all out either in your head or on paper/screen.

Before I really engaged in a walking program several years ago, I was extremely sedentary. I had been slowly losing the weight I had gained over time in response to depression and lack of activity by eating more healthfully and being a little more mindful of my step count. I knew I needed to get out and walk or go to the gym or something, and I knew that walking was easily accessible and basically free (since I still had good, supportive running shoes that I hadn’t used in several years).

I also had several reasons why I couldn’t just lace up and go:

  • It wouldn’t be fair for me to go walk and not take my dogs
  • People drive too fast on the gravel road I have to walk on and kick up too much dirt for me or my dogs
  • The neighbors’ dogs rush the fences and bark–I don’t want me or my dogs to have to deal with that, and I don’t want to create that disturbance
  • The dogs are old and don’t or can’t walk the way I need to walk
  • I don’t want to waste gas/contribute carbon emissions to drive to a dog park or other area for me or my dogs to walk when I could just go out the door, but… (circular but’s)
  • I’m too tired today, besides… (compound but’s)
  • I don’t have time today
  • It’s too wet and rainy and muddy out
  • My knee hurts/my feet hurt
  • I need to lose more weight first
  • I just don’t feel like it, and etc

I believed all of those reasons, reinforced them until they were absolutely automatic. Every one was legitimate, felt legitimate, at the time.

And then it was winter. The snow came down and down and down as it does every couple years and thickly blanketed the gravel and stopped the cars and quieted the dogs and gave me a reprieve from work and energized me… I felt like a little kid. It was so beautiful out. Quiet. Calm. I wanted to be out in it!

So I put on my heavy coat, put on my boots, let the dogs out to pee (snow up to the shoulders of the smaller of the three) and put them safely back inside, and walked a new path out to the road, up the snow-covered gravel road to where it meets a main road, and back home again. A neighbor in a large 4WD truck stopped and asked if I needed a ride. “NO! I’m enjoying a walk!!” I told him.

I did that walk again the next day. And the next day. And the day after that. The snow started melting and it wasn’t quite as lovely after a few days. I took a few days off from walking. I decided I was too busy again or too tired or my knees may have ached–I can’t recall exactly which “but’s” came automatically to mind.

Then a weird thing happened: I missed walking.

I loved the way I felt after a walk, even when I got wet. Later, I still loved the way I felt after a walk, even when a car threw dust and when the dogs rushed the fence line. I still loved the way I felt after a walk, even when a car drove aggressively close to me and when two large German Shepherd dogs jumped on me (and even though both of those things pissed me off AND scared me, I quickly bought bright, reflective vests to wear and became more alert to that neighbor’s and others’ dogs).

I appreciated how my body responded to the walking and how my body parts moved whether or not accompanied by pain. Part of the body response was improved sleep, so being too tired fell away from my “but’s” list. Because I was sleeping better, I was waking earlier and had more time. I was losing weight with the increased calorie burning and improved metabolism. I was walking that gravel road I hated, and eventually walking down the busy main road with the steep hill and no shoulder where trucks rushed by doing 50-60 mph (in a speed limit 35 zone) so I could cross and walk a marvelous neighborhood with wonderfully landscaped lawns, broad shoulder walkways, and protected riparian habitat.

I was so in love with how I felt physically and the improvements in muscle tone, strength, and endurance, as well as the improvements in my mood, and I no longer felt guilt about not taking the dogs with me–at ten plus years of age, they wouldn’t enjoy five- to seven-mile walks, and they wouldn’t be safe on the busy roadways. I needed this AND it wouldn’t be good for them. I stopped worrying about causing a disturbance or taking up space.

I reframed all of my reasons against walking and found reasons to do it. Through this, I started looking at other automatic reasons I had for not doing things. I rejoined a gym, though I had “wasted money” on it in the past by paying for a membership I didn’t use, and started going somewhat consistently. I (re)discovered lots of bodyweight exercises I could do at home and modified them to my current abilities and space availability. My walking made way for running to return a couple times per week (something I enjoyed very much at different times in my 20s, 30s, and 40s), and I no longer expected myself or my body to run daily, but rather just when it felt good to do so, which happened more and more.

Can you take your list of automatic reasons not to exercise and reframe each reason?

If you hate to exercise, is there a physical activity you do enjoy? Do you like to clean? Do you like to walk your dog? Do you like to dance? Do you like to bowl? Do you like to ride horses or swim? Do you like to stretch or do yoga?

If you don’t have time to exercise, did you know that ANY activity is better than no activity? (Google it if you’re curious; here’s one of many articles.) Exercise does not have to be a set number of slow-moving minutes accompanied by grueling exertion and pools of sweat and vomit (or whatever horrible thing you might imagine or has been your experience). Change what you think of when you think about exercise or physical activity.

This is a good place to insert: Double check with your healthcare provider before beginning any exercise program, particularly if you’ve been sedentary for more than a few weeks to months.

You could start with two to five minutes of standing and swaying (or marching in place if you’re up for it) once every hour, or go to the kitchen and refill your water while doing toe/calf raises at the sink for a minute. If you work from home and your dinner table has become your desk, can you move the laptop to a counter and stand and work for awhile, or stand while you make phone calls? Try not to sit in one place for any more than one hour while you’re awake. (Do these activities seem too ridiculous to you? You’d be surprised at how adding even just a little bit of movement can snowball, particularly when you make it fun, safe, and appropriate for you and your level of fitness.)

A one-mile walk a day is a great goal and achievable in a short period of time. That’s about 2,000 steps, and it can be broken up into two to four sessions–or as many is necessary–when first starting out. Eventually, most people can easily complete a mile in under 1/2 an hour, and sometimes in 15 or fewer minutes.

For those who are not ambulatory or have chronic conditions that severely limit exertion, are there activities you can do–arm circles, neck stretches, toe pointing/tapping, side bends, other movements–or that can be adapted to your situation and your preferences? If walking the length of the house multiple times per day is too much, can you walk your room once an hour? Can you do a set of seated calf raises once an hour or alternate with a short set of arm circles?

If you have guilt about leaving family members or dogs at home while you go out to exercise, can you find someone to watch them? Can you adjust your thinking to knowing that if you take time for yourself to increase your physical activity, you will eventually most likely feel better, sleep better, have more time and more energy, and be a better parent or human companion to your dog… a better worker, a better community member, a better partner…

If you have an all or nothing mindset about exercise (or anything health-wise), you may think “if I can’t do a full workout, can’t walk a whole mile (or three or five), can’t run (or insert cardio activity or machine) for 30 minutes, … then it’s not worth doing at all.”

This self-limiting belief can surface in almost any aspect of your life, and it can feel fully legitimate. “If I have one piece of cake, I’ve blown my diet for the day/week/forever… there’s no point in continuing to care what I eat.” “I didn’t meet my step goal yesterday, so I’ve blown it for the week… I might as well just pick it up next week.” “I wasn’t going to drink/eat sweets/smoke/buy that new watch… but since I did, all bets are off and I’m going to keep up the splurge.”

Those “no points,” “blown its,” and “splurges” can easily result in feeling like you’ve betrayed yourself and lead to shame.

If doing a thing, like a workout, felt like a healthy and good thing for you to do, then doing a little bit of it is better than not doing it at all. If not doing a thing, like eating cake, felt like the healthier choice than doing it, stopping at the one thing or as soon as you can manage, is better than the full blown splurge.

But even so, remembering that you are human and you are allowed to slip up, make mistakes, change your mind… and it doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person or a failure. Shame need not be attached! (I would add, you do have to make room in your eating plan for things you enjoy in order for it to be sustainable. You also have to make room in your activity plan for rest and recovery days.)

How did you reframe your automatic thoughts? Did you find this useful? Let me know!

And go well!

The resources and information shared here are solely for informational purposes and aren’t intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any condition or disease or provide any professional advice. Discuss any changes in your activity and eating patterns with your primary care physician prior to pursuing.

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