What If You Hate Exercise?

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ChadShannel is going to sleep in and skip the gym today.

I got this e-mail today: “I’m thinking about my New Year’s resolutions and I want to make exercise one of them (not for weight loss, I know that doesn’t work) but because I understand that it’s good for my body. The problem is, I absolutely hate it so I don’t know if doing it fits in with my idea of Health at Every Size. I hear people talk about “joyful moving” but there’s nothing joyful about it for me!”

This is a question I get a lot.  First, there is a mistaken notion out there that because I talk about my life as a fathlete, and I talk about what the research says about fitness, that I am “promoting” exercise or I think that people “should” exercise.

Sometimes this happens because I haven’t written things as clearly as I should have, sometimes I think it’s because people have issues around exercise and just seeing discussion about it triggers them which is totally understandable given how much it gets shoved down our throats and the horrible experiences many of us have had (President’s Physical Fitness Test – I’m looking at you.)

Let me take this opportunity to clarify – I do not care if anyone else exercises. I am fully aware that there are people who don’t enjoy exercise, in fact my partner is one of them, and I have no judgment about it at all.

The short version of why I don’t care is that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not exercise dependent, and other people’s choices around exercise, including whether or not it fits into their personal prioritization of their health and the path they choose to get there, are none of my, or anyone else’s damn business. The long version can be found here.

So if you hate to exercise, that’s completely cool and understandable, lots of people do.  Even if exercise has health benefits, that doesn’t mean that anyone is required to do it, or that exercising creates some sort of health guarantee wherein you are now immortal unless you get hit by a bus- that’s just not the case.  Besides, there are lots of things that are shown to improve our odds for health and we aren’t all obligated to do any of them, and we couldn’t possibly do all of them.

When we insist that people “owe” society healthy habits it very quickly becomes a slippery slope.  If we “owe” society exercise do we also owe it 8 hours of sleep a night?  A vegan diet?  A paleo diet?  To quit drinking? To not go skiing or play soccer or anything else that could get us hurt?  Who gets to make these mandates?  I recommend that people not try to tell others how to live unless they are super excited about someone else telling them how to live.

The reason I talk about the research around fitness is that I believe we are constantly lied to and I think we have the right to review the research ourselves. We are told that exercise will lead to weight loss when the research suggests no such thing.  Lied to that exercise won’t make us healthier unless it makes us thinner.  Lied to that we have to do hours of specific things in order to get benefit from it.  Those things aren’t true – the research shows that about 30 minutes of moderate activity about 5 days a week can have many health benefits for many people, and that even 20 minutes a week can benefits.  That still doesn’t mean that we owe anybody exercise, and, again, it doesn’t give any guarantees when it comes to health.

So back to the original question:  If you hate exercise, you have lots of choices.  One choice is just not to do it.  Another option is that maybe you decide that you believe what the research says about the health benefits and you want those benefits so you find some forms of movement that you hate less than other forms of movement and do them.  You may believe what the research says and choose not to exercise.  You may decide that you think the research is crap.

Maybe you get a local pharmacy or clinic to take a baseline of your metabolic numbers, do the movement for a couple months and then see if there’s any change in how you feel or your numbers.  Maybe you work toward a specific goal (picking up a grand kid, walking to the mailbox.)  If you and exercise had a messy break-up, you can try to kiss and make-up.  Or not.  All the choices are yours and none of those choices are anyone else’s business.

I also wish people would stop encouraging us to set unrealistic goals about how we’ll feel about exercise. I think that way too many athletes think that everyone must feel like them – since they love to exercise everyone else can learn to love it too!  I think that’s bullshit. People might learn to love exercise, or they might not. I, for example, hate long distance running.  I always have.  I’ve heard people talk about getting a “runner’s high” but the only runner’s high I ever get is when I get to stop running.

That said, I want to complete an IRONMAN traithlon so I do a lot of running.  It’s not joyful movement for me but just because Health at Every Size encourages joyful movement does not mean that we can’t participate in movement for other reasons.  Still, even though many people learn to love running through this journey, I don’t think that’s a realistic goal for me.  My goal is to cross the finish line and get the medal and if I have to run to do it then that’s how it goes. My body, my goals, my relationship with movement, my choice.

If you hate exercise and you decide to do it anyway, you can try to make it suck less by picking activities you don’t hate or hate less (gardening? dancing in your living room?  weight lifing? video game that incorporates movement? window shopping?), changing activities frequently, playing music, watching television, reading a book, talking on the phone (when I do flexibility training I often do several of those things at the same time to try to stave off the boredom) but you may never learn to love exercise, and what you choose to do about that is your business and nobody else’s.

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33 thoughts on “What If You Hate Exercise?

  1. Might I suggest that one of the reasons fat people hate exercise is that when they attempted something they liked – joyful movement, as you call it – they were made to feel uncomfortable by others around them. Sometimes it is most difficult to put your head down and keep on. (one of the reasons I admire you so much, Regan!). I had knee surgery a year ago and after therapy I kept at it – because my knee gets stiff if I don’t. I hate exercise – but when it’s over I’m always glad I did it.

      1. Sometimes exercise just doesn’t make people feel happy or better, except that it’s over. I usually feel good after exercise, but that much-touted burst of energy? Nope. As soon as I cool down from cardio I’m ready to nap. This has always been my reaction, even when I was in my twenties and fit enough to run five miles on the beach and finish up with wind sprints.

        1. I agree. I usually exercise at night because of that.
          And I only practice yoga, all forms, because I love it. I have decided I’m not willing to spend time on things I don’t love.

  2. Well said Ragen. My mom hates exercise and it took me a while to figure it out. I bought her a Wii for Christmas one year, a membership to the gym another. She didn’t use them. So I stopped bugging her. Family wants you to exercise because there is a better chance that the loved one will be around a little longer. I was not judging my mom – I wanted her to stick around. But she felt unhappy and inadequate so now she gets want she wants for Christmas – gift certificate to Red Lobster.

  3. I think exercise has been linked directly in my mind to high school gym class. Once I divorced them and just found something active that I enjoyed doing on a regular basis, it wasn’t “exercise” so much as just something I liked to do, like reading.

    I would also strongly encourage staying away from fitness blogs because they ruin everything.

  4. I have to chime in on finding movement you like. People are ways ready to tell you what to do and when to do it. I hate walking. Hate it. Kill-me-now kind of hate. But people were always trying to get me to do it. You know, “walk off the fat!” I finally ignored them and signed up for kick boxing because I had ALWAYS been interested in forms of fighting and was always discouraged away from it. Turns out I loved it and it felt like play so it made me happy. There are so many fun things to do and you should just find what you enjoy. Hooping sounds awesome, I’m trying that next and bonus…it is great for the core. So Regan is right, do what you enjoy. If it translates to being more active, that’s great. If it doesn’t, that’s great too.

  5. I hate exercise so much. Always have. I’m waiting for a *good* fitness game. Walk it Out held my attention for two cycles, but once I’d beaten it twice, the songs were old and the terrain was no longer interesting. I’ve tried Wii Fit and a couple of dance games, and they don’t hold my attention for long. It’s also hard because I don’t see any results from exercise – I don’t feel better, I don’t have more energy, I don’t notice myself getting stronger or better endurance. I’ve made myself a deal that I can do other things instead of exercise – things I need to do around the house, so at least something is getting done. But even that’s hard! (I also wish I liked vegetables more.)

    1. I would love a really cool cyberspace landscape for use with a linked treadmill or elliptical, so you could hike through fantastic landscapes, uphill and maybe even downhill for a change, watching flocks of dragons, passing by magical dwellings and strange shops, trotting through, say, an alien settlement. It could be so cool. There could be stories that emerge if you’re paying attention, or games you could play as you traverse different landscapes, shooting targets or collecting items or spotting creatures. Or it could be trippy, deep, and meditative.

      On the other side of the spectrum, an exercise bike that was hooked up to a really decent washing machine, where, say, a half-hour workout would get a few pounds of laundry through a wash, rinse, and spin cycle would give me much more a feeling of accomplishment than going nowhere.

      Just fantasizing.

      1. Strange, I saw a Globetrekker the other day where that was the way the washing machine was powered – you rode the bike, you got clean clothes. I love your earlier idea, perhaps you could make it reality or know someone who could help you. And when you’ve created it, let me know!

      2. That would make running more enjoyable, I agree.

        There is a Zombie Run! App that’s supposed to be immersive like that but I’ve never used it.

        The only way I’ll run is indoors on a treadmill (allergies and reactive airways), and if I can change the pace at will. I don’t do planned intervals. I listen to my body and let it decide how far, how fast, how long for each interval. So I’ve never tried this app, but it does seem like fun.

  6. As has already been said, it is absolutely okay for you to decide that exercise is not for you.

    But if you do want to pursue exercise, regardless, I highly recommend treating it like an experiment. Avoid setting strict targets on things like miles walked or lbs lifted at the gym. Instead, experiment.

    1- Write down a list of different types of exercise, ones you think you might hate less or might even like. Or at least ones that are more accessible for your circumstances. Like dancing, swimming, walking, maybe some sporting activities like badminton, cycling, yoga and so on.

    2- Give yourself a monthly challenge. Nothing big. The challenge is Spend This Month Experimenting With One Type of Exercise From The List. Say you pick yoga one month. Part of the experiment will involve researching whether accessible, size-friendly classes are available in your area and, if not or if you prefer to do it solo, researching youtube videos and online instructions from experienced yoga fathletes. Look for modifications for poses, and write out a short list of some starter poses you’d like to try. Maybe spend one at-home session just practicing the breathing and holding your body, before incorporating others. Then try them during that month, and just see how they feel for you. Just playing around to see what feels right.

    3- Document. While experimenting with one type of exercise, document your experience. What did you enjoy about it, if anything? What did you not enjoy? What was challenging? How do you feel after a month of trying it, versus beforehand? Are there any specific aspects of it (like, with yoga, specific poses or types of yoga) you found beneficial or enjoyable?

    4- Repeat with the next exercise on the list.

    5- As and when you find an exercise type that you either enjoy or feel able to do more of, set yourself a low-stress, achievable plan to fit it into your schedule. Maybe you’ll find you like to go to the pool after work one or two days a week. Maybe you’ll get in the habit of going for a walk through the park at the weekend, or cycling to your place of work. Maybe you’ll do a 10 minute yoga session as part of your morning wake-up routine.

    6- Find ways to motivate yourself. If you don’t particularly enjoy something, it can be a struggle to maintain it as a practice. I, for example, really hate brushing my teeth. But I choose to continue doing it because the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. I’ve had a lot of success by making use of gamification – sites like HabitRPG let you create a little adventure character that you level up by completing real-life tasks and chores. Everything from washing the dishes to going for a jog. It’s silly, but it really has worked for me – helped me get my home out of a squalor situation when I was in recovery from some serious mental health crashes.

    7- Feel free to keep returning to the experiment. Going back to the yoga example – say you experimented with yoga for a month, and ended up enjoying some of it enough to keep up a small practice. But after a few months of doing a sun salutation every day, you’re starting to get bored. It’s okay to put Yoga back on the experiment schedule again. Maybe this time you’ll experiment with balance poses, or take a class, Or just try a different set of poses.

    8- Be Kind To Yourself. Remember this is an experiment. It’s not an obligation. And it’s okay to bow out at any time. And remember to reward and praise yourself when you do something you don’t want to be doing.

    1. This is fantastic advice. Well said!

      I know I feel better when I exercise regularly but I’ve had trouble finding exercise I can do regularly — something I can really stick to. I don’t have to love it, but I do have to not be endlessly making excuses not to do it.

      Today was my first day using the Zombies Run 5K app and the immersive storytelling in it is amazing. I’m really looking forward to going out tomorrow and finding out what’s next for me.

  7. Oh my gosh the President’s Physical Fitness Test – blech! I finally got smarter around 8th grade and would wear a skirt and sandals to school on that day…oops.

    I think that for people who hate exercise and don’t want to bother with it, there are so many other good habits – getting fresh air and sunshine, journaling, reading a book, eating some fresh veggies or cooking something yummy, getting plenty of sleep, doing an art project, writing a letter…these things add to quality of life so much!

    I fall in the category of wanting to get exercise for health reasons but mostly despising everything about it. Strength activities appeal to me though – things like shoveling snow or raking leaves or general yard work. Also stupid stuff like chasing my dog around the house (fun for both of us). I have a fair level of PTSD surrounding activities that seem gym-class-like such as running, playing sports, walking, or using exercise equipment.

  8. Remember that old commercial?

    “Mooooom! This mouthwash tastes like medicine!”

    “Well, if it didn’t, it wouldn’t work!”

    Uh huh. Sometimes, we take medicine that we hate, because we want the positive benefits. If you want the specific benefits of exercise (such as building strength, or flexibility, or stamina – choosing a workout specific to such goals), then you suck it up and do it.

    Some people will promise you that you’ll learn to love it, but just because they did doesn’t mean you will. Personal experiences are personal, not universal. People forget that. People say, “Well, it worked for me, so obviously, it will work for you, too! If I can do it, anyone can!” Phooey and poppycock.

    So, if you don’t like it, but you want the results, weigh the pros and cons. How MUCH do you want those results, and do you want it more than you hate exercise? If so, yeah, choose your less-hated movements and try to make it work. If you hate it more than you want the results, then don’t do it. Either way, own your choice.

    And remember, it’s OK to change your mind, later. If you weight the data again, and make a new choice, own that choice, too.

    And just ignore the fools who think that your body will respond just like theirs, or that you owe them (or society) any particular physical behavior. You only owe law-abiding, basically civil and reasonably polite behavior. That’s it.

    My New Year’s resolution is to be better about taking my medicine every day, because I do want those results.

  9. Disclaimer: This is only about me and something fun I found, not a prescription for anyone else.

    Back in the day when I thought exercise had to be unpleasant and all about stats, I used to show up at the gym and bust out 20-30 mins on the exercise bike, which was boring as hell. One day to alleviate the boredom, I tried imagining landscapes flowing by, and then suddenly, it occurred to me that I could *get a real bike.* I’d loved riding bikes as a kid, but forgot all about them when I was 16. And that’s where my adventure began. I got to explore NYC and environs on two wheels and avoid the subway — woohoo! There’s nothing like riding over the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge, high over the East River. Or discovering parts of the city you never even heard of, without having to participate in traffic jams.

    Sure, biking’s still technically “exercise”, but it’s so fun I’d do it regardless. I love dancing, too. I do Pilates class once a week for the core strength, and that’s the only thing I’d say I do for “results”, but it makes me feel really, really strong.

    I’m still fat and really enjoying what my body does for me and how I feel in it. And I’m grateful not only that I found something I like, but that my body likes it too.

    1. I used to ride a bike for transportation, when I was a kid, and you’re right about it not being boring. When you’re out in traffic, you have to be aware (NO EARBUDS!). But you can find some great places, when you’re out exploring, that you would have driven right by without checking them out, so that’s a definite plus. Also, you can stop and chat with people you see out and about.

      I found that getting a softly padded, and extra wide seat was wonderful. Those hard wedges that you’re supposed to perch on are awfully uncomfortable, but the “mushroom seat” I got in Holland was great! So comfortable that I never minded riding.

      When I had a gym membership and no bicycle, I used the recumbent bike, which was always empty and available, because the hard-core gym rats think it’s not “real enough,” or something. I don’t know why, but they do tend to look down on it, but yaaay- no competition for me. Anyway, I sat back and pedaled. Sometimes, I’d watch TV, but what really made me enjoy it was when I brought my knitting. YES! I could engage in the hobby I loved, making something beautiful, while getting my exercise! And people stopped looking at me as “EWWW – fat girl working out in public,” and starting coming up to me to ask about my knitting projects. Add some music to the mix, or an audio-book, and I was feeling SUPER productive, as well as having fun, and I found that the time on my bike just flew by.

      The good thing about treadmills and exercise bikes is that when you get tired, you can simply stop. When you are out riding a real bike, you have to allow time/energy/strength to get back home. So bear that in mind. Plan your route, and start small. Make it circular, if you want variety of scenes, or just go to a place and back again, the same route, if the same route is good enough for you. If there’s a slope on your route, I recommend going uphill first, so that if you’re pooped, you can coast home. Also, be aware of traffic patterns and weather hazards. Exercise bikes are safe, and year-round, regardless of wind, rain, snow, etc. But yeah, they can be boring, if you don’t find some way to spice it up.

      Other “playful” options include scooters (the type you stand on and push with your feet) and skateboards, or even roller-skates. I like the old-fashioned roller-skates better than in-line skates, because the in-line skates require strong ankles and good balance. You can find a roller rink, and rent skates, and see if it’s something you would enjoy, and if so, it’s easy to keep a pair in your car, and drive to a park with a good smooth sidewalk, or maybe a nice empty parking lot, and skate away. Also good for short commutes – they lengthen your effective “walking distance,” considerably. I used to roller-skate to school, when I was a kid.

      Wow, now I really miss my roller skates.

  10. Here’s my story– I’m not saying this is a path anyone else is obliged to follow.

    Some thirty odd years ago, I got a Rubenfeld Synergy session which made it clear to me that life in my body could be a lot better.

    I took an Alexander Technique teacher training. I studies tai chi (somewhat casually).

    I did some other stuff along those lines.

    The general idea is that moving more efficiently makes life easier, and that there’s a lot of efficiency to be gained.

    After more than ten years of this stuff, I found that walking had changed from something which was either unpleasant or ignorable to something I could enjoy. Also, I’d stopped tripping over my feet, and that my tendency from childhood to trip over my feet had a specific cause. My muscles had been so tight that I wasn’t letting my legs swing forward far enough, so I had to swing my lower leg forward and around the outside. If I didn’t do that high enough, I’d catch my toes on the ground.

    This doesn’t mean I wake long distances, but it does mean I’ll walk a half mile or mile when I don’t have to, just because I feel like it.

    I’ve always hated exerting myself, and I now believe it’s because my torso muscles are tight enough that I just don’t take deep breaths. I don’t know if I’ll especially end up wanting to exercise, but I really think that not forcing myself may well have been a good idea.

    Not forcing myself with walking or running also seems like a good idea– I’d probably have damaged some joints.

    If you want to look into moving more easily, I recommend Uncommon Sensing which offers a free monthly Feldenkrais exercise. That’s about forty minutes of gentle attentive movement. One of them improved my hip mobility enough to make it easy for me to get up on bar stools.

    Seated (mostly?) version of Scott Sonnon’s Intuflow— taking your joints through their range of mobility. I’ve found that it also (as promised) improved my body awareness.

  11. One of the things that turned me off about exercise was there never seemed to be an end… You can do 10 reps! Good! Now do 15! Add 5 more minutes to your walk. Somewhere they might slip in an end amount – 30 reps or 45 minutes or whatever. But it was long and boring.

    I need to work on getting that out of my head, because I do need to move enough to not get aches from sitting to long at my computer.

    1. I hate the “you can always do more” mentality.

      Thanks to FlyLady, I have learned that enough is enough. Good enough is good enough, and done is better than perfect (which never happens).

      So, I guess if you find a number of reps, or a time amount, or what-have-you that satisfies you, just ignore the “more-More-MORE!” people, and do enough to be satisfied.

  12. I have a long standing hate for exercise or physical activity. Luckily as a child, I had an understanding mother who actually wrote a letter exempting me from track and field days as the competition and always placing last caused high anxiety. I did go to gyms when my mother footed the membership but the mother-daughter gym-bonding time couldn’t cover how much I hated the gym so that went by the wayside quickly. At this point, I would like to do yoga but lack the motivation even though a hip defect I have would greatly benefit from it. And every time I fall due to clumsiness/lack of balance and coordination, I worry a little more but just haven’t reached the point of committing to exercise. I hope to reach the point soon, maybe committing to writing this down will help 🙂

  13. I found that exercise (strength and flexibility training) is the one and only thing that will keep my back and joints from making my life hell. So I started wth exercise as kind of maintenance work, like brushing my teeth or taking the cat to the vet. It’s not fun, but the effects of not doing it are even less fun.

    Of course, over time, like all habits, it kind of grew on me. More than taking the cat to the vet, actually, because I have a competitive streak, and being able to lift *more than last month* was something I actually enjoyed.

    However, if someone finds that their quality of life can be helped equally well by massages or ibuprofen, good for them!

  14. This was a wonderful post to read; it’s so easy to forget that it’s okay to hate exercise, and if you do hate it it’s okay to either do it anyway or not do it at all.

    I was wondering if anyone here could offer some advice or suggestions since there’s such a great discussion going (though the post is a few days old so maybe nobody is still reading). For background, I have a medical condition that has left me, at the moment, with a slow-healing ulcer on my leg. My physical activity of choice, which I do enjoy and get a lot of physical and emotional benefit from, is swimming, but I can’t swim again until my leg heals. I also used to enjoy walking, but now find it very painful to be on my feet for any length of time (again because of the ulcer). Are there any exercise activities that will get me moving (because the increased sedentary tendency caused by having sore legs has been making me sore everywhere else as well) but that a) doesn’t require weight bearing on my legs, b) doesn’t require immersing myself in water and c) doesn’t require expensive equipment or a gym membership?

    A recumbent exercise bike would probably be perfect (using my legs is good, as long as I’m not standing on them!), but I don’t really want to take out a gym membership for one machine, and since I weigh upwards of 400lbs I’m not sure if the equipment at a gym would be safe for me to use anyway. I definitely can’t afford to buy my own exercise bike, especially when there’s the chance I won’t enjoy using it and will end up giving up :-S

    1. So, this is months late, but Therabands/resistance bands might help you a lot. You can use them seated, both for arms and legs, and they’ll let you run through the range of motion you have at the moment against resistance. They’re also pretty cheap on Amazon, and you can start with one of the light ones and move up as you need/want to. I hope you’ve already recovered, and can get back to swimming, but in case someone else needs help, I thought I’d throw that out there.

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