Why is it so hard to exercise regularly, and what works to become someone who really enjoys it?
You know you should exercise, and you may even like the idea of it. Yet once you start doing it, your ability to stick with it disappears within weeks or even days.
It is not uncommon to struggle with exercising regularly, and most people think it is a simple matter of having enough willpower to force themselves to go to the gym three to four days a week. That can work under the right circumstances, but willpower is not enough to sustain long-term exercising, and all but a few will give up within weeks of trying. Once you stop and feel unsuccessful, you will find it even harder to try again. Not only does the feeling of failure de-motivate you, the idea of getting started again feels even more daunting knowing you failed to succeed last time and that it won’t be any easier next time.
When people call me for help with exercise, they want me to give them a specific routine to do and provide the accountability so they stick with it. Neither solves the real problem. It is just the conventional idea of getting fit that didn’t work the last time they tried. What is needed is a fresh approach and addressing what is really keeping them from becoming self-motivated to do it on their own. There are always good reasons when you resist exercising, and the secret to overcoming that resistance is to understand what those reasons are without any judgment. Therein lay the answers to becoming successful.
Think back to the last time you tried to get into an exercise habit or participated in a fitness program? Why did you stop? Perhaps you saw fitness as something you were going to do for a specified period and stopped when the program ended or you reached a goal weight, instead of as the launching pad to having an active lifestyle. Or maybe there was something specifically challenging that kept you from sticking with it. If so, look at that challenge from the perspective of compassion and understanding. The most common exercise challenge is successfully meeting a weekly goal, either as a specific number of days or number of minutes. For most people, the belief that anything less than fully reaching the goal is a sign of imperfection, which erodes self-esteem and the confidence of ever being successful.
Jenny is a good example. She set her goal for going to the gym at four days a week and believed anything less than 45 minutes wasn’t worth doing. She was proud of herself for reaching her goals the first few weeks, and then in the fourth week she missed a day because one of her kids had to stay home from school. She was really upset with herself for not being good that week, but she knew she couldn’t do anything about it. The following week her husband was hospitalized for several days and she missed even more of her workouts. When she shared with me how her week went, the first thing she said is she had been bad and failed to reach her goals. She was angry with herself for not finding a way to make up for the lost time and said she was about to give up on exercising. She couldn’t do it right. She saw herself as incapable of being successful or being good enough to stick with it. She couldn’t forgive herself for the circumstances beyond her control. She also couldn’t see how successful she had been considering those same circumstances.
Other clients of mine have given up because they had picked programs or routines they didn’t really enjoy, set goals that were totally unrealistic, or tried to force themselves to get up earlier when they already got up quite early for work. Some believed, like Jenny, that anything less than 30-45 minutes wasn’t enough to bother. Yet many of them were not physically fit enough to do that much and needed to start with much smaller goals. And many simply lacked enough motivation, often from limited interest in the activity, not being well enough prepared, letting other things be a greater priority, lack of support, not seeing results quickly enough, or not being in touch with the real reason they wanted to exercise. All of these reasons offer clues to their resolutions.
When you can see what is really in the way of being successful, and you do it with objective curiosity, you can start to learn what would work better for you. Instead of trying to force yourself to fit into someone else’s idea of what exercise should be or how you should do it, you can create your own rules and strategies for making exercise fit your personality and lifestyle. If you assume you know yourself best and that you do not have to be perfect to have success, you can give yourself permission to choose aerobic activities you prefer and to start off with smaller goals you can reach. As you have successes, you then build your confidence and your motivation to stretch yourself further. The more you do, the more you will be able to do and will want to do. And if no one is judging your performance, you can feel good about your accomplishments even if you don’t fully reach your goals. In fact, you may do better without goals.
Instead of exercising to do as you should, you can set yourself free by doing activities that feel good at your own pace and becoming self-motivated by your successes, no matter how small. Pretty soon, you will be amazed to discover you actually enjoy being active and fit, and you might even discover a passion for it. Jenny did once she stopped being so hard on herself and followed her own interests in and outside the gym.