Escape From Inertia

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Most of us struggle at some point to overcome a stubborn resistance to exercising. Here are some tips for getting — and keeping — your body in motion, even when you don’t feel like it.

Fill in the blank: I can’t exercise because _________.

C’mon, you’ve probably got lots of good reasons. Because your ankle still hurts from its sprain four months ago. Because you work 50 hours a week, minimum. Because of those horrible memories of high school gym class. Because nobody else at the gym seems to carry 20 extra pounds. Because you have nothing to wear. Because you have a new baby and you’re wiped. Because, when you do exercise, you leave the gym feeling sore, exhausted and defeated. Because you simply don’t want to.

Nearly all of us — even those reading this article while pedaling away on the elliptical machine — could fill in that blank at some point in our lives, if not on most days. But how we handle our excuses for not exercising makes a big difference: While some regularly find ways to overcome them, others accept them as unfortunate facts of life.

When we fall into the latter trap on a regular basis, we come face to face with what’s known as “exercise resistance,” a condition that prevents us from maintaining a healthy level of physical activity.

For all its apparent similarity to slothdom, exercise resistance is, in fact, rarely a reflection of your work ethic. “More than half of my clients are struggling with exercise resistance,” says Alice Greene, an ACE-certified trainer and owner of Feel Your Personal Best, a healthy-lifestyle coaching company based in Newburyport, Mass. “They think the problem is that they’re lazy or lack willpower, when that usually isn’t the case.”

While a commitment to physical activity does require a certain amount of self-motivation, hardcore resistance to exercise is usually more than mere reluctance. Problematic belief systems, lifestyle patterns, depleting nutritional habits, low energy and a host of other unexpected causes can all contribute to an activity-averse profile.

Sound like you? Instead of beating yourself up, try acknowledging that you’re resistant to the idea of exercise (not lazy or incapable), then determine the source of the resistance so you can remove the real obstacles between you and your fitness goals. “The key is to meet yourself exactly where you are now,” says Bess Marcus, PhD, a clinical health psychologist and professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Brown Medical School in Providence, R.I., and author of Motivating People to Be Physically Active (Human Kinetics, 2009). That can be trickier than it sounds, so here are some common sources of exercise resistance and a few concrete strategies for shaking their grip.

Why Do We Resist?

As noted, we all have our own list of very personal and individual challenges that explains why exercise gets pushed to number 998 on our to-do lists: the job that’s too demanding to leave for a lunchtime walk; the babysitter or workout partner who cancels at the last minute; a discomfort with gyms or fitness clubs; a to-do list that does, in fact, have 998 things on it.

But on closer examination, all of these concerns tend to fall into one of two fairly straightforward categories, says Marcus: excuses and barriers.

Barriers are generally environmental or physical limitations that can be minimized or overcome with some strategic environmental or methodological adjustments. For example, having a broken leg and lacking access to a safe, convenient space to exercise would both qualify as barriers: They throw up certain obstacles to exercise, but don’t prevent you from taking action to work around them.

An excuse, however, is more of an internal barrier: a self-legitimized reason why you feel unable to make it out on that 10-minute walk. Excuse-based exercise resistance is often trickier to resolve than barrier-based resistance because it stems from something deeper inside us.

“Struggling with regular exercise is typically not about scheduling time or having access to exercise equipment,” says Greene. “The real obstacle is usually your thoughts and feelings.”

These internal barriers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Here are a few of the most common obstacles:

Low Self-Esteem: An all-too-common factor in exercise resistance, low self-esteem undermines the very notion that you matter enough to merit this kind of time-and-energy investment. “The less deserving you feel, the harder it is to justify taking care of yourself through exercise,” says Greene.

A related challenge involves body image — the notion that you’re somehow not fit-looking enough to do the things that fit people do. Green notes that going to a gym, where a person who perceives herself to be out of shape might feel awkward and on display, can simply be too high of a hurdle to jump at first. (To learn more, read “Overcoming  Gym Jitters” in the July/August 2005 archives.)

The “Fixed Mindset”: Even for those with relatively high levels of self-esteem, the idea of physical movement can create a minor identity crisis. If you’re used to succeeding wildly in other, more cerebral realms (being a lawyer, playing the piano, cooking gourmet meals), you might be hesitant to try an activity at which you may not excel.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006), psychologist Carol S. Dweck, PhD, describes this kind of anxiety as evidence of a “fixed mindset.” While people operating with this kind of mindset “thrive when things are safely within their grasp,” she says, they struggle when new activities test their abilities.

When we don’t perform up to our expectations (which we usually won’t do the first time we play racquetball, for instance), the fixed mindset internalizes it: We don’t think, I failed at this; we think, I am a failure.

Perfectionism: Closely related to the fixed mindset is the demon of perfectionism, and exercise is easy prey. We’ve been led to believe that all exercise means a good sweat on a cardiovascular machine, followed by some strength training, followed by stretching — and anything other than that routine just doesn’t measure up.

“Many people think of exercise as black or white: You have to go hard, or it doesn’t count. If you scheduled a 45-minute workout, but can only fit in 30 minutes, you don’t do it. We think, it’s all or nothing, or it’s not worth it,” says Greene.

She recalls a client who set a goal of four weekly workouts. When she called to report that she had only done three — her husband had been hospitalized when she would’ve done the fourth — the first words out of the client’s mouth were, “I failed.” Greene’s response? “What about the three times you did make it?” Not seeing success in increments amounts to seeing proof of your insufficiency everywhere you look.

Martyrdom: Chronic self-sacrifice, a trap into which many parents fall, is another common obstacle to healthy activity. When the priority seems to be on everything except you — kids, spouse, job, housework, volunteering — taking time to be active can often seem beyond reach.

“When you take on the martyr role and meet everybody else’s needs but your own, you eventually feel unworthy of taking time for yourself,” says Greene. This may be less a matter of low self-esteem than a loss of clarity about the essential role your own well-being plays in your ability to be of support and service to others. When you fall too low on your own priority list, you’ll naturally start feeling sorry for yourself, resentful, even trapped. This feeling of martyrdom — combined with lowered vitality — can rob you of the pleasure you take in life, making the idea of exercise seem totally out of reach.

Precisely because most of these internal obstacles come disguised as reasonable excuses, Greene is a huge advocate of analyzing the hidden factors of exercise resistance. “Don’t assume that it’s just you failing again,” she says, “Tell yourself there’s a good, valid reason why you’re resisting, and you’re going to figure it out.”

The Key: Write It Down

Greene recommends setting long-term goals as the key first step to overcoming exercise resistance. Write down your goals and identify what you want from exercise. Maybe you need more energy to take care of your aging parents, you want to thwart the cardiovascular disease that plagues your family, or you’d like more stamina to be able to play with your kids.

“A goal of general good health is too vague to get you out of bed morning after morning,” says Marcus. “The goal has to be solid and sustainable for it to be effective.”

In addition to your greater goal(s), set more-specific activity objectives you can hit easily from your current fitness level: whether it’s four 10-minute walks a week, three strength-training sessions or five 5-mile runs.

“Be honest about what your body can do now and what your mind will allow you to do, and meet it right there,” says Greene. This helps defeat all-or-nothing, perfectionist thought patterns.

The next step is to log activity — any amount — in your journal. Marcus coauthored a study, published recently in Preventative Medicine, in which researchers asked 163 sedentary people to log their exercise stats on the Web. “The more times people came to the Web site, the better they did maintaining their exercise habits and meeting their goals,” she says.

In your journal, keep a daily record of what you did, how it felt and any other relevant circumstances surrounding your exercise. For example: “Today’s goal: 25-minute jog. Couldn’t find the energy to get out of bed. Couldn’t go at lunch because of meeting. Finally went for 15 minutes after work and felt much better than last run.”

Entries like these are a powerful tool that shows progress and provides both accountability and motivation. They’re designed to remind you that you can find the time to exercise. Even though you struck out twice that day, you got somewhere on the third try — and you felt yourself improving. This is great for building what psychologists refer to as “self-efficacy” — the belief that you can accomplish what you choose to.

The most important rule about your journal? No judgment, says Greene. If there’s a run of blank or unsuccessful days, that’s OK, as long as you realize they don’t redefine your successful past efforts. “Think of your log as a learning device,” she says. “Write down what went well, and what didn’t.” The journal helps you see patterns of success and challenges; this will help you maneuver more deftly around your resistance next time it comes up.

Jumping the Hurdles

Sometimes, overcoming exercise resistance simply requires that you expand, or even redefine, the very idea of exercise. For starters, exercise doesn’t always have to be running or playing basketball or going to aerobics. If you’re after basic health benefits (vs. optimal fitness), it’s about being active for 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services updated its basic fitness recommendations in October 2008: The agency now prescribes 150 minutes per week of moderately intense activity. “Moderately intense activity” means you can walk briskly, rake leaves, scrub floors, in-line skate, dance, do water aerobics or anything else that keeps you in motion — and even more important, keeps you happy. “Find something that is somehow enjoyable,” says Marcus. “If you don’t find fun in some part of it, you won’t stay with it.”

There’s also no rule that says you have to bang out one 30-minute (or more) session every day. If you’re really stuck, start by dividing daily activity into 10-minute segments, or complete half your goal in the morning and half at night. And integrate as much activity as you can into your daily life: Use the stairs instead of the elevator, get off the bus two stops early and use a push mower to cut your grass. Every little bit counts.

On the other hand, for some of us, nothing less than a rigorous challenge will bust us out of a nonexercising rut. In their book Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 and Beyond (Workman Publishing, 2005), Henry Lodge, MD, and retired lawyer Chris Crowley argue that, for most folks, jumping in with both feet is the best way to get immersed in a solid workout routine — six days a week, no excuses. “We urge you not to start gradually,” they write. “It’s far better to make a sharp break with the past and a serious commitment to the future.”

Ultimately, whichever strategy gets and keeps you moving is the right approach to take. So if the slow and gradual method hasn’t been working for you, the strong and steady approach might well be worth a try.

Change for the Long Haul

Resistance, by definition, is difficult to overcome — at least until you’ve overcome inertia. So it’s wise to be prepared for old patterns to rear their heads once in a while.

Your journal will help you recognize your resistance patterns (which decreases their power), and it can also become a repository of tricks by which you’ve successfully outwitted them in the past (look — last time the gym felt like too much, you took the dog for a walk instead).

Marcus also strongly recommends having an exercise partner to help you stay on track. “Even if you don’t feel like exercising on a certain day, you won’t want to let your partner down,” says Marcus. You can also seek out friendly environments: a class designed for beginners, a walking group or a yoga class within walking distance from your house. Having a handful of ways to shift or moderate your expectations can usually get you back on track relatively quickly.

Despite our best efforts, momentum and motivation may still evaporate from time to time. The log may go blank — for days, weeks or even months. But this doesn’t have to signal the end of the line.

“You can look at a derailment in two ways,” says Greene, “with a capital D or a lowercase d.” A small-d derailment is more of a speed bump. You think: OK, for whatever reason, I needed to take a break — now I’m going to start building back to where I left off. But a big-d Derailment is a bright-red stop sign. “You may think you have to start back exactly where you left off, which can feel overwhelming,” she says.

The most important thing, says Green, is to “honor what your body is telling you and do what feels good. Who cares if you had to start back slow to get going again? It’s not all or nothing.”

You can also try adopting what psychologist Dweck calls a “growth mindset.” She writes that in the growth mindset, unlike the fixed mindset, a momentary sense of failure doesn’t define you. Instead, it’s just “a problem to be faced, dealt with and learned from.”

In the growth mindset — embraced by athletes like Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali — effort is always what matters, not natural ability or talent. “No matter what your ability is,” Dweck writes, “effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”

What virtually all the experts agree on is this: What you need most is a willingness to start right where you are, no matter where that is. Shift your thinking in a healthier direction, and your body will follow.

Dimity McDowell is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colo.