Justin Adams, MD, chief medical officer
Exercise excuses and how to overcome them
“When did you become an athlete?” my mom asked. I was 26 years old at the time, and I’d just finished my 10th marathon as the final stage of the Ironman triathlon I was participating in.
This question was funny to me because it’s not as if the Ironman was my first athletic event. My mom had started me distance running around age seven. As a single mom, if she wanted to get out for regular runs and not leave us kids alone together, then we were expected to run with her. I ran cross country in high school and participated in freshman basketball, mostly from the bench. I had been running marathons for years by age 26. I think what my mom was getting at was the simple fact that I was not a “natural athlete.” Growing up I wasn’t exceptionally fast or strong and my athletic coordination was measured on whether I could go a whole day without tripping over my own feet.
With this lens, I find it ironic now when friends ask me what my fitness secrets are. My answer is this simple, I keep showing up. I have done some sort of exercise every day, with very rare exceptions, my entire adult life. I noticed many years ago that when I exercised, I felt more energetic and resilient. I was happier and more clear-headed. This was something that I wanted every day, so I started exercising every day. At this point, it is so deeply engrained in me that daily exercise is automatic. Recognizing that many others aren’t at this point, I’ve put together this list of some common excuses that I hear for NOT exercising and some techniques to overcome them.
EXCUSE #1: “I don’t have time to exercise.”
This can be because of caring for kids, long work hours or any of the other things that fill up our modern life. Exercise is often something that we do after we are done with everything else. The problem is, we are never done with everything else.
- Solution #1: Instead of telling yourself that you’ll fit in exercise “somewhere”, make a plan for it. For me, this is often first thing in the morning, early, before the rest of my household is awake so that there’s nothing to distract me. It also means I can do the rest of my day knowing that I have already exercised, so it never feels like a part of my “to do” list. This may not work for everyone; other people prefer immediately after work or in the evenings after they’ve put the kids to bed.
- Solution #2: HIIT (High intensity interval training) has been shown to have a big impact on fitness, often in 15 minutes or less.
- Solution #2: How much television do you watch (or time spent entertaining yourself on the internet)? Don’t allow yourself to watch TV unless you are exercising or have already exercised that day. While watching TV, use resistance bands for strength training, walk in place or pedal away on an exercise bicycle.
- Solution #3: If your kids are young, pop them in a stroller or jogger and head out for a brisk walk. If your kids are older, exercise with them. Go bike riding, swimming, or take walk around the block. If you have children, then explore the neighborhood, or play a game of tag or basketball.
Excuse #2: “Exercise hurts my body.” (a.k.a. “I’m too old/fat/uncoordinated/ arthritic/embarrassed to exercise.”)
When something is foreign or uncomfortable, it’s a natural response to avoid it. Whether you feel too old, too overweight, or think you look funny in workout clothes, there is a simple solution—start with something.
- Solution #1: If exercise is hard on your joints, try swimming or take a water fitness class. Exercise is even more important for people who have arthritis than it is for people who don’t. If the inside of your joints are worn out, then having strong muscles, tendons, and ligaments to support your joints from the outside is essential. Though people are often sore after they work out, plenty of evidence shows us that all types of chronic pain gets better, in general, when people are exercising regularly.
- Solution #2: Bicycling is great exercise for people of all ages and physical types. Once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget that skill because it becomes part of your unconscious memory. You can bike with friends or on your own. There is also less pressure on our joints with cycling than with walking, running, or jogging.
- Solution #3: If you are self-conscious about your weight, start with a home workout. There are countless great fitness apps out there. Take a walk in nature or enjoy a walk with friends. Wear clothing that you find comfortable for working out.
- Solution #4: Don’t compare yourself to others. This includes your former/younger self. There is no right age, weight, or ability level for exercise!
EXCUSE #3: “I can’t get motivated to exercise.”
We all know the good reasons to exercise, but somehow this doesn’t motivate us. As it turns out, the best way to be motivated to do something is to make a habit of doing that thing. You’ve heard of “fake it ‘til you make it?” Exercise is a perfect example.
- Solution #1: This is often tied to another common excuse for not exercising: “I don’t like to exercise alone.” Asking a friend to meet you for a walk or at the gym can be really helpful. Even during COVID, outdoor exercise with a friend is supported as being one of the safer social activities that we can do. If this isn’t available or comfortable for you, then try doing a video chat with a friend while you walk and watch the miles fly by.
- Solution #2: Make a chart or keep a log (Google “Exercise Chart” for example) or track your workouts using a tracking app like MyFitness Pal, Strava, or Map My Walk.
- Solution #3: Give yourself a reward for meeting your fitness goals – a reward that you really want. If you love massages, book a massage at the end of every month. If you have a special indulgent show or book on tape that you like, only allow yourself to watch it or listen to it while exercising or after you have exercised. This is called “temptation bundling” and there is research to support its effectiveness.
EXCUSE #4: “I’m too tired to exercise.”
Exercise is a paradox. It can make your muscles physically tired, but you’ll actually feel more energized from it. Exercise increases your blood flow which means that your heart is pumping oxygen to your brain, muscles, and tissues faster. It also promotes the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and natural endorphins that will make you feel better and more energized.
- Solution #1: Oddly enough, when you feel too tired to work out, the solution is to exercise. Begin with low to moderate intensity exercise. Try walking, biking, or yoga. Over time, move into more moderate or high-intensity exercise.
- Solution #2: As with Excuse #3 above, exercising with a friend goes a long way towards increasing energy and getting motivated to get out, even when we’re feeling tired.
- Solution #3: Exercise during your most energetic time of the day. It may help to work out first thing in the morning before your day gets away from you. Can you wake up 30 minutes earlier or go into work 30 minutes later? Can you extend your lunch break in the middle of the day to allow for a brisk walk? Exercising after work might sound exhausting, but it will actually calm and invigorate you, helping to separate your workday from time at home.
- NOTE: Exercise cannot make up for getting too little or poor-quality sleep. Sleep apnea and other sleep disorders can disrupt your sleep cycles, leaving you tired all day. Talk with your doctor if you or your spouse feels your sleep is compromised.
EXCUSE #5: “Exercise is boring” or “I hate exercise.”
Patients ask me all the time what the best form of exercise is. My answer is, “Whatever you enjoy doing.” Fundamentally, if you don’t like it, or can’t grow to like it, you’re not going to do it.
- Solution #1: Find fun exercises that you enjoy. Try inline skating, biking, or gardening. Join a mommy walking group. Sign up for Zumba or a cycling class. Join a sports league. Or go dancing. Make a list of exercises you don’t like and then a list of activities that you might be willing to try. Work your way down the list until you have several that you like doing. If you find your workout routine getting boring, try something new, or vary your routine by the season. There’s an exercise for everyone!
- Solution #2: Again, find a friend. Whether in person, on the phone or in a Zoom meeting, having friends will make it more enjoyable.
- Solution #3: If it makes exercise more enjoyable for you, it’s OK to watch TV, listen to a podcast or read while you’re on the exercise bike or treadmill, as long as your workout is still challenging.
Tip: Read through the list of excuses and see which ones are most familiar to you. Now choose at least one of the solutions to each excuse you choose and plan to try it within the next week.