What If You Don’t Like to Exercise (Much)?

What if you aren’t enthused about exercise, or you know someone who is frustrated by their seeming lack of motivation to exercise.  They (and possibly you) know they “should”, but somehow it just doesn’t happen, at least most days. 

Turns out 80% of people do not get the recommended amount of exercise in a week.  (That would be 150 minutes of moderate exercise, 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, or some combination of that.  You are also meant to throw in at least 2 episodes of strength training that hit your major muscle groups.)

So, it appears that most people are in the same boat. 

Should we just give up, or can something be done about this?   

Here’s what doesn’t work (Usually)

It is clear that many attempts to get people to exercise more (and maybe even start liking it) do not work.  To say that social sciences, psychology, exercise science, and other disciplines have been doing their best to cajole people into getting more exercise would be an understatement. 

Of all the programs and strategies that have tried and failed, three different types stand out.  You may have come across some of these yourself. 

  1. Educating people about the benefits of exercise, and/or giving people advice.  Unfortunately, this approach does not help them like it, or suddenly feel capable.
  2. Many programs have been instituted at the community level, sometimes as a research program.  This can appeal to some who like the comradery, but it mostly tries to give the “should” group a boost, and then hope that some positive feelings kick in.  Usually, however, once the program is over, so is the exercise effort.
  3. There are some efforts to make it more fun.  Gadgets to track exercise abound.  Some folks respond well to counting things, whether it be number of steps, minutes spent exercising, or numbers on the scale.  This even includes paying people to exercise.  You can then set up competitions and rewards to make it more social.  Sometimes, this helps to keep people engaged…for a while.  Many times, however, the competition ends, the novelty wears off, and so does the exercise. 

What is going on here?

You can go down a real rabbit hole if you attempt to answer this question.  And therein lies the rub.  Not to be discouraging, but here is a short list of what research has shown us is going on when it comes to developing a fondness for exercise, and the mojo to keep at it. 

I will just fly through the list here in order to get to some of the more interesting (and encouraging) bits later. Ready? 

The list:  Readiness to make a change, self-regulation, impulse control, self-care, self-compassion, self-efficacy, body image, the appeal of being sedentary, occupation, intrinsic motivation, access to exercise opportunities, health status, genetics (yes, it’s true), pain tolerance, flexible thinking, time management skills, strength of executive function, self-awareness, and knowledge base. 

Little wonder that efforts to address a few of these and hope the rest falls in to place just don’t work. 

Many people end up deciding that it is just not for them.   

This also means that the 80% does not have to feel bad.  The road to regular exercise is an everything bagel for sure.  So, what is a person to do if they really, really, want to turn things around and start to at least sort of like to exercise and develop a habit of it? 

Some answers

There are obviously no simple answers.  BUT I will try to tease out a few things that can give a person a good start.   

Developing an intrinsic motivation.
That is, something that you value about yourself, and that you want for yourself in your life.  This becomes something that is with you all the time, through thick and thin.  Notice that this is decidedly absent in the three things listed above that don’t work. There, the emphasis is on following a program, or reinforcing a “should” (like trying to follow health advice). 

Developing feelings of empowerment regarding exercise.
How?  The answer here is again quite complex, unfortunately.  Research tells us that many people do not feel athletic enough, healthy enough, or knowledgeable enough, to exercise correctly.  Some people are averse because they think it may be painful.

Here, three things stand out as being helpful:

  1. One way to develop mastery over the process is to start small, learn a few things about it, and identify the skills to work it into your life.
  2. Another key part of the process is to recognize the positive aspects, consider them as rewards (not a “should” that carries drudge with it).
  3. This, along with a chosen intrinsic value, work to reframe the experience (even the anticipated pain).

Focus on self-compassion.
What this really means is turning a perceived failure (“I don’t know what to do at the gym…I feel so awkward.”) into a learning experience.  (“I can find out what to do, just like everyone else who is just starting out.”)  On another note, it’s important to recognize that change is difficult.  Cutting yourself some slack along the way is important so that you can keep on trying. 

This is a tall order.  Can it be taught? 

Yes, but it takes time and thoughtful guidance.  It also takes bringing the complexities into focus.  Awareness is key.  For some, reading about it can be helpful.  For others, asking the right questions at the right time can nudge people forward into taking a new approach. 

Teaching the new approach focuses on finding a compelling WHY, a personal value that can carries intrinsic importance.  Then, helping people feel more comfortable with it by slowly experimenting with finding what they can enjoy.  And, finally, learning to forgive themselves instead of defaulting to feeling like a failure. 

People who exercise regularly have these things on board.  It is not that they are some sort of weird species that actually likes to exercise.  True, some people are more disposed than others.  But that doesn’t mean that it is impossible for the rest to find a way. If you break it down into the right components, there can be some “ah-ha” moments, and development of a mindset that will keep people coming back until exercise becomes more a part of their lifestyle.


© 2023 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: AaronAmat | iStock

The End of Try Try Again by Kristen Carter MS

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