Exercise haters | WellBeing 200

How to stay active when you hate exercise

Like eating more greens, we know exercise is good for our body and mind. What stands in the way of getting a healthy dose of movement? How can exercise loathers develop more fondness for physical activity? We take a look.

More than half (55 per cent) of all Australian adults don’t get the recommended amount of exercise for good health.

While many societal factors come into play — like sedentary work, commuting, juggling parenting and hyper-busy lifestyles — many of us would prefer to do something else than another task that feels like more work. And some of us — let’s be honest — actively loathe the idea of donning lycra and heading for the gym.

What’s clear is that we don’t need another lecture about the importance of exercise (we know how good it is for us, right?!). Sadly, the pressures of trying to live up to our health standards and the feeling that we’re failing have become a leading source of stress. Thirty-nine per cent of Australians in a survey by the Australian Psychological Society said trying to stay healthy caused them stress, making it the fourth leading cause of stress. Exercise has become loaded with guilt and failure and the ongoing pressure to add more to an already swamped to-do list.

What’s really behind some people’s dislike of exercise?

Is it true that we don’t like fitness? If we dig down into the truth, often there’s something more than meets the eye.

According to Angela Lee Jenkins, a qualified exercise physiologist and corporate wellbeing speaker and coach, for many it’s busyness and the fact that exercise requires exertion and time.

“When we’re overwhelmed, it’s very overwhelming to fit all that in,” Jenkins says. But exercise and movement don’t have to be complicated, she says.

It is about energising yourself, and it can be as simple as breathing and stretching.

Jenkins says that the individuality of our genetics, physiology and personality also means we’re all different. “For some, exercise is a bigger part of their wellbeing. Others may need more social connection or meditation or to retreat inside and read a book.”

Many of us have come to equate exercise negatively. For example, punishing ourselves for eating food like chocolate rather than treating it as something that makes us feel good.

Emotional and mood problems, especially depression, can create significant barriers to movement. But for those suffering from depression, it’s even more vital to get moving, given exercise’s well-known antidepressant action. Rather than resorting to exercise that feels overwhelming, starting with small movements can kick off the process of healing. Jenkins, who also founded and hosts the Will to Live podcast, says moving our body helps move our emotions. “When we shift our physiology, we look at things through a different lens,” she says.

How exercise stereotypes hinder us

Stereotypes around exercise, such as the common phrases “sporty types” and “couch potatoes”, don’t help matters either. Nor do the negative experiences many have encountered around sports and performance — like being the child who is never picked for a team.

As a result of such experiences, many people feel insecure or self-conscious about going into a sporting environment, fearing that they may not be able to perform.

According to Jenkins, the idea is that exercise has to be formal. “We tend to have it [exercise] in this pigeonhole, but there are so many different movements we can do,” she says.

Exercise can be anything from dancing in the kitchen to gardening or stretching.

Emily Peut, a sports and exercise physiotherapist based in Adelaide, says another common misconception is that exercise has to be within an allocated timeframe. “Blocks of incidental things would still count as daily exercise,” she says.

How much exercise do we need?

According to government health guidelines, we need to be active every day for good health, including our mental health.

Along with moderate exercise (such as walking, playing golf, lawn-mowing and swimming), our bodies need to get a more intense aerobic workout that gets our heart and circulation pumping. This includes faster pace activities like jogging, rapid cycling or soccer.

At the very least, 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity or 1.25 hours of vigorous exercise — or a combination of the two — is recommended each week. Ideally, double that amount is recommended. In summary, the more exercise you do, the better.

Peut says women’s greater susceptibility to musculoskeletal, autoimmune and mental health issues makes it important for them to look at exercise as an investment in their health. Along with reducing the risk of many diseases, it improves our energy levels, sleep, productivity, mood and relationships, she says.

Weaving it, not squeezing it, into your everyday life

Instead of thinking of exercise as a two-block period, Peut recommends that those struggling with time break it up into small, achievable chunks of 10-minute bursts throughout the day. Jenkins suggests short circuits of movement, stretching at home on the floor between other tasks and taking advantage of exercise apps.

Activities we regularly do but that we don’t commonly label as workouts are the easiest way to weave exercise into the flow of our daily lives. For older people, it may be choosing to stay independent, such as doing the housework, gardening, mowing the lawn and walking the dog, Jenkins says. For busy parents, it might be playing with their kids at the park. It’s about looking for opportunities in daily life to tweak what we do to maximise movement. All these small bouts of physical activity add up.

“People tend to think they have to make all these big changes at once, not realising that small changes can make a big difference,” she says. Research by journalist and writer Dan Buettner shows that in the longest-living communities in the world (dubbed the Blue Zones), exercise isn’t a formalised activity but part of regular daily life activities, such as gardening, cycling and walking. While most work creates sedentary lifestyles in our culture, by changing our habits we can fit more movement into our lives.

Build habits, not motivation

Peut, who has 10 years of experience as a sports and exercise physiotherapist, believes motivation isn’t enough to make us more active. “The brain will always take the path of least resistance,” she says.

“We can’t rely on pure motivation to create a habit.” She says there’s a false misconception that people who exercise regularly are always keen to go.

“We have to rely on discipline and habits,” she says. Peut has a special interest in the neuroscience of creating habits and says struggling with exercise is extremely common.

Whether it’s a daily walk with a friend or a weekly yoga session, she suggests the following ways to make an exercise habit.

  • Set an intention. Decide what you want to achieve and be specific. For example, set an intention to go for a 30-minute walk on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
  • Diary it. Plan and time-block it into your diary as you would for work, birthdays and appointments.
  • Empower your intention with language. Create language (and thoughts) that support your intention. Instead of saying “I might try to exercise this week”, try saying “I’m going to exercise on Monday”.
  • Temptation bundle make it fun. If you don’t like the idea of exercise, combine it with something you do enjoy. For example, ending your exercise with a visit to the coffee shop as a reward, listening to music while you’re on an exercise bike, exercising while catching up with a friend or while surrounded by beautiful scenery. “Associate something you don’t like with something you do like,” Peut says. “When we make things fun, we are more likely to do it,” Jenkins adds.
  • Make it easy and start small. Overcommitting to more than you can do comfortably is counterproductive. “Try not to say ‘I’m going to go every day’,” Peut says. “You might just go three days this week, and if you’re really not feeling like it, you can set yourself a five-minute goal. Go for five minutes; you’re likely to go a bit longer.”
  • Make it obvious. Encourage the habit with reminders and make the habit accessible, such as leaving your gym clothes, walking shoes or yoga mat out and ready to go. “If it’s tucked away, it’s not front of mind,” Peut says.
  • Create a contract. Make a contract with yourself that outlines your goal and share it with someone, such as a partner or friend. Build consequences and rewards into it.
  • Enlist a helper. Don’t expect to solve everything on your own. If a health condition or injuries are holding you back from the benefits of physical activity, Peut recommends seeing a professional who can help you create a program that works for you. If emotional problems like depression are holding you back, get help from a psychologist. If you don’t know what to do, a personal trainer can help, or you can try teaming up with a buddy.
  • Set up a supportive environment. If you’re doing your exercise at home, setting up a supportive space is important, Jenkins says. Fun tweaks like burning essential oils or playing songs we love that bring back happy memories can increase our happiness hormones and encourage any exercise practice at home.

The right exercise for you

When we’re burnt out and tired, the last thing we want to do is exercise. “It’s checking in with where you’re at,” Jenkins says.

We might need gentle exercises like some gardening or a short walk at such times. For others, she says a small run works best to rejuvenate us.

Because we’ve also all got unique body types and needs, it’s about choosing the best option that makes exercise work for you. For some, a high-intensity CrossFit is good for their body; for others, gentler exercises like yoga or Pilates are more appropriate. Those who feel intimidated by group activities might prefer doing virtual classes in the comfort of their home.

Finding meaningful movement

To some of us, bouncing up and down in a gym or doing aimless laps of the block may lack meaning.

Jenkins says the key is to drill down into what’s important and meaningful to you. Connect what your purpose is to
a movement — for instance, seeing how those yoga stretches might ease the pain in your back and make you a more present mum. “If someone is just doing it for the sake of it, it’s hard to keep going,” she says.

“We’ve all been given this gift of life. To make the most of it, movement and exercise is part of that.”

Linda Moon

Linda Moon

Linda Moon is a freelance feature writer reporting on health, travel, food and local producers, work, parenting, relationships and other lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in International Traveller, Voyeur (Virgin Airlines magazine), Jetstar Asia, Slow Living, Traveller, Domain, My Career, Life & Style and Sunday Life (Sydney Morning Herald), Sprout, NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature & Health, Australian Natural Health, Fernwood Fitness, The New Daily, SBS, Essential Kids, Australian Family, Weekend Notes, The Big Bus Tour & Travel Guide and more.

Based in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, Linda is a qualified and experienced naturopath, spa and massage therapist and a partly trained social worker.

Her writing interests focus on health, responsible consumerism, exploring beautiful places and the quest for a fairer, healthier and happier world for all.

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 22t140453.766

A healthy smile

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 17t142145.187

Joyful indulgence, made healthy

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 17t135704.410

The Path to Body Neutrality

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 17t115430.971

Illuminate inner beauty