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Exercise Tips for People Who Hate Exercise

Dr. Lisa Finlay
Director of International Services, Headington Institute, 2017.


If you’re familiar with the Headington Institute’s approach to resilience, then no doubt you have heard us talk about

the importance of physical, aerobic exercise for optimal brain health! From a mental health perspective, there is really no downside to exercise: it helps regulate appetite and sleep, it is correlated with decreases in depressive mood, and it improves cognitive clarity.

But exercise doesn’t feel great for everybody, right? If you don’t like to exercise, or you have trouble sticking with an exercise regimen, then this blog is for you.

Photo: Ashleigh Connor

First, I would like to normalize your experience. I know few people who love exercise in and of itself. More often, they love the physical and mental benefits of exercise, so they do it for that reason. Not enjoying the sensation of physical exertion, sore muscles, and sweating is not unusual. Feeling too tired or too busy to exercise is also common. Moreover, the less aerobic exercise you typically get, the more these things are likely to feel burdensome.

Fitness blogs are full of suggestions for increasing exercise. These are all good tips: breaking exercise up into 10-minute chunks throughout the day; exercising with a friend (increases motivation); prioritizing exercise in your schedule; setting measurable short-term goals and rewarding yourself when you meet them.

Here are a few psychological realities that affect your exercise patterns. Understanding them will increase your capacity for engaging exercise in a new way.

  1. You are hugely influenced by the habits of people in your immediate vicinity. Whoever you are living with, or spending time with during lunch and after work, is affecting lifestyle choices like whether to exercise. For this reason, I encourage people to set fitness goals, whenever possible, with their partner or a close friend. If there is no way that your partner or a close friend would exercise with you, you may need to join some kind of exercise community. You need people in your life that will be interested in your fitness and who will be ready to exercise with you at a regular time.
  2. Since exercise is not enjoyable in a direct and immediate way, don’t ask yourself whether you feel like exercising in order to decide whether to start your run or bike ride or gym workout. You are never going to feel like it! Whenever you decide that exercise can most conveniently fit into your day, put it there and make it a habit. Morning times can be harder to establish up front, but they will be less susceptible to getting rescheduled as your day goes on. But do what works for you—many people stick to a lunch-time or right-after-work routine.
  3. Be willing to start small and don’t engage in all-or-nothing thinking. Many of us have some exercise ideal in our heads that we might never be able to meet, so we give up altogether. If you don’t have time to exercise, or you feel too out of shape to exercise, start with five minutes a day. Do that until it’s a habit you can tolerate, and then increase it. The increase can be two minutes.
  4. If you’ve had the same motivational statement for exercise for years, consider changing it to something that feels meaningful for you today. For example, if your primary goal in the past has been “I should lose weight” and this goal is associated with frustration, there might be something refreshing about a goal like “I want a healthy heart” or “I want to set a good example for my kids.”

Here’s a link to the New York Times Seven Minute Workout, in case you need some practical solutions suitable for any location.

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