Understanding UFOs (Unidentified Fitness Obstacles)

Are you trailing a string of fitness failures mysterious enough to be classified as an x-file? Here’s how to get to the bottom of your UFOs once and for all.

As a health club director, Michael Gerrish worked with many kinds of people. Young and old. Buff and trim. People looking to lose weight and others hoping to gain. Professional athletes and those new to the idea of shaping up. Despite their differences, they all had at least one thing in common: A fitness club membership and the desire to use it.

Gerrish worked hard to accommodate all his clients’ needs. He outlined diets, designed weight-training regimens and devised cardiovascular exercise schedules. Still, to Gerrish’s dismay, he found that many of these people had another thing in common: They were unable to fully attain their fitness goals. He was stumped, so he began asking questions.

Turns out one person was depressed and didn’t realize it. Another was going through major changes at home and couldn’t find the time to work out. Yet another had a drinking problem he hadn’t yet admitted. Electromagnetic illness from sitting in front of a computer. Not enough money to keep paying the membership dues. Nutritional imbalances. Menopause. Perfectionism. The list went on and on.

Gerrish lit on an idea: If people dealt with their unique problems, exercise-related or seemingly not, could they reach their fitness goals? The answer was a resounding yes. “It was just amazing. Once we started addressing those kinds of things right away, people were making progress in leaps and bounds,” Gerrish said. “It made all the difference in the world.” Gerrish came up with a phrase that applies to all the various exercise blocks: Unidentified Fitness Obstacles, or UFOs for short.

UFOs Defined

According to the International Health Racquet and Sports Club Association (IHRSA), though health club memberships continue to rise annually, for every 100 people who join such clubs, about 75 leave them. One can only infer from this data that a large number of people do not feel they are making satisfactory progress. Apply Gerrish’s findings, and this makes sense. Most people, he says, have at least one UFO, and some are more significantly affected than others.

In his book When Working Out Isn’t Working Out (St. Martin’s Press, 1999), Gerrish groups his findings into two categories: Mind/Body UFOs and Exercise UFOs. The former has to do with your mental and physical state; the latter with the actual way in which you work out (see sidebar, below).

Completing the Puzzle

Between Mind/Body and Exercise, UFOs seem to address nearly every possible fitness hindrance. That’s as it should be, says Gerrish, because dealing with UFOs is a whole-person approach that connects life inside and outside the health club.

“We’re trying to show how all the pieces are linked, and how, to have optimum success, you can’t leave any of the pieces out,” explains Gerrish. “Everybody has a different puzzle. The first step is to find all the pieces of the puzzle. The second step is to learn how to put them all together. Most people only put together a small part of it and say, ‘To heck with it.’ That’s why they don’t always achieve what they want to achieve.”

Gerrish suggests that you start by taking inventory. What UFOs can you identify in yourself? Make a list of the top 10. Select your biggest problem, and deal with it. See a psychotherapist. Change medications. Cut down on your carbohydrate intake. Do whatever it takes to rid yourself of your main UFO. You may find that some of your other UFOs disappear along with it.

For example, if you feel pain when you work out, crave sugar, don’t find yourself energized by exercise or often can’t find the energy to work out in the first place, you may have low-grade depression. Treat the depression, and you eradicate a host of exercise barriers in the process.

If you can’t quite put a finger on your fitness obstacles, try keeping a journal. Not just a fitness journal or a food journal, but a mood journal. Write down how you feel each day. This will help you spot patterns you may not otherwise notice. And journaling can be a positive experience in its own right. Many studies have shown that the very act of writing about stress (one possible UFO) reduces its effects.

Another way to combat fitness obstacles is to make a personal connection to your workout. An example of this from Gerrish’s book is a middle-aged woman named Shirley who’d been overweight her entire life. She told Gerrish that although she knew her weight problem was a health risk, she found exercise boring and painful. One thing Shirley did find inspiring was gospel music. By wearing a Walkman to the club, Shirley could plug into the positive feelings of gospel music and thereby make working out a positive experience in her own personal way.

If a specific type of music isn’t your thing, find out what is. Walk on the treadmill while watching your favorite TV show. Take up a sport you loved during childhood – dance, soccer, swimming. Identify something that inspires you, and integrate it into your health routine.

Working out is an intensely personal experience. A program that works for you may not be the one that works for your mother, your best friend or your co-worker. UFOs are personal, too. But identifying and dealing with them may very well be the key to attaining your own exercise goals.


Michael Gerrish, M.S., author of When Working Out Isn't Working Out, is an exercise physiologist, personal fitness trainer and counseling psychotherapist. He is currently working on another book that highlights mind-body makeovers in seven different people. For more information on either of Gerrish's books or to sign up for a free fitness newsletter, check out www.exerciseplus.com. Berit Thorkelson is a freelance writer who swears she sees UFOs all the time. She works and lives in St. Paul, Minn.

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