fitness · motivation

Hate exercise? You might just be much more unfit than you think

imageWho hates exercise?

I’ve written about non-responders, people who exercise but who don’t get any fitter here.

That would be so sad. I’m very glad I’m not a non-responder.

I’ve written too about people who hate exercise but who have to do it anyway. See What’s love got to do with it?

You don’t need to love it, though it’s easier if you do. (And I’ve got to say that I’m temperamentally inclined to think that everyone could come to enjoy some form of physical activity. I feel the same way about liking the outdoors. I tend not to believe people, at first, when they describe themselves as indoors people. But I can be convinced. They’re your preferences after all.)

But today’s post is about another category of non-exerciser, the person who hates physical activity because it’s too hard. For this sort of person baby steps are essential. Today I’m writing about where to start when you do nothing and exercise seems too hard.

In our society doing nothing, absolutely nothing, turns out to be much easier than it was for generations past. If you work at a desk and watch television for entertainment and don’t make a conscious effort to move, it turns out you can get very very unfit. I’ve worried about this before when I wrote about chosen immobility and the trend to home elevators.

There’s a great article about the variety of people who don’t like to exercise, Hard wired to hate exercise?

They talk about a a range of reasons to hate exercise but the group that interested me were people for whom your typical exercise starting point, say walk one minute, jog one minute, is way too hard.

“Many sedentary people push beyond their intrinsic range when they try to exercise too quickly or intensely, which can make them hate the activity and want to stop, says Dr. Ekkekakis.The idea hinges on something called the “ventilatory threshold.” Normally when people breathe, they expel an amount of carbon dioxide that is equal to the amount of oxygen taken in. But beyond the ventilatory threshold, the release of carbon dioxide begins to exceed the body’s intake of oxygen. This excess release of carbon dioxide is a sign that the muscles have become more acidic, which the body finds stressful.For most individuals, the ventilatory threshold is around 50% to 60% of the way to their maximum capacity, though there is tremendous individual variation. For elite athletes, the threshold may be as high as 80%, while sedentary people may hit it at 35%.”

It turns out that very unfit people can hit that threshold after one minute on the treadmill or even after doing the dishes. For some people, the researchers go on to say, just making dinner can be a workout.

That’s depressing, on the one hand, but it also suggests a way out. Such people should start small, baby steps, and not feel at all bad about it.

Start with everyday exercise: garden, take the stairs, clean your house, hang laundry on the line, make dinner, wash dishes, just get up and move.

And then add some fun movement: dancing, sex, hiking in the woods, whatever floats your boat.

And then, if you’re still keen to try, then go back and try the walk one minute, jog one minute route to learning to run. You might not hate it so much on the second time round.


17 thoughts on “Hate exercise? You might just be much more unfit than you think

  1. I was once one of those unfit people who hated exercising/physical activity. Not only was I sedentary but I had some substance-related habits that made things even more difficult whenever I tried to do something more strenuous than walking up the stairs to my apartment. What helped me get past that and on the path to where I am today was a system of what my husband always calls “baby steps and consistency.”

    Another thing that helped – but that took me a few years to learn – was how to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. When I first started running, for instance, I had a hard time grasping the difference between “pain” and “discomfort” and just lumped it all into “unpleasant feelings I’d like to avoid.” Now, though, I’m very much okay with doing physical activity that causes me some discomfort – like running faster or riding my bike farther – which was definitely a huge shift in the way I perceived things.

    1. That change in perception is interesting, isn’t it? I had to go through that with sweating which I had somehow thought of as unpleasant. Once I got comfortable with sweating I got much better at pushing myself.

      1. I love sweating but hate feeling short of breath. That’s when I’m likely to bail, and I’m working on changing my perception in that area. Great post!

      2. Using a heart rate monitor helps, I find. Sometimes I feel that I’m pushing myself hard but the heart rate monitor says otherwise. (That’s one of my hill issues! )

      3. Yes! The sweating thing! I used to HATE to sweat when I was younger but then in high school, the girls’ volleyball team held practices in an un-air conditioned field house in Oklahoma in August, and I realized that I was going to sweat no matter what I did. So instead of fighting it I just accepted it and now I love to sweat. The sweatier, the better. The pain was really in the resistance with that one.

      4. @Tracy I – I hate feeling short of breath, too. I compensate for it by taking great gasps of air when I’m doing aerobic exercise, because I love the feeling of going fast, but obviously the faster you go the sooner you’ll get really out of breath. I have to keep telling myself, no, you don’t really need to stop yet, you can keep going. (Don’t worry – I can tell when I do really need to stop!)

        (I like sweating, except for the tendency of it to get on your glasses whenever you bend your head down. That’s annoying.)

  2. The problems which some people have in beginning an exercise problem are immense. If they’re too heavy and the weight distribution is such that they have very large mid-sections, they actually cannot run because quite literally their stomach going up and down is too painful. It’s also an extremely embarrassing thing for them to ever admit. And this is just one example. The problems which must be addressed relate to far more than simply having them get used to moving, before running. So you’re talking here only about sedentary people who are really not that far away from being able to exercise, or at least, run. Even the people chosen for The Biggest Loser are very carefully screened to ensure that they can perform enough exercises to make the show interesting to viewers. Unfortunately, some people must slowly improve their body composition and their health, before exercising in the way you’re contemplating, Sam. And these people are not even close to as uncommon, as you might think.

    1. Knee problems are another thing I hear about a lot, for people who are very heavy, older, or both. (They’re the reason my parents don’t run, independent of cardiovascular fitness. They can get fitter, but I don’t know if they can get un-bad knees.)

    1. Yeah, there’s lots of reasons it’s hard to start. I wasn’t thinking of the person who is too large to comfortably exercise. Instead, here I was just thinking of the various reasons one might have for hating exercise. And I do think it’s unique to our place in time and history that we can get so out of shape. Technology makes everything too easy. I was also struck doing learn to run clinics that for some people the walk one minute, run one minute thing was just too much. They needed (and there’s nothing wrong with this) run one minute, walk 10. Or run 30 seconds and walk five. Or even just walk. Otherwise, it was just too much.

  3. Taking small steps is great advice. It really works. I’m one of those people who didn’t like to exercise because I experienced physical exertion as painful. I approached working out with fear, thinking my body was telling me something bad was happening to me. I had to develop a new attitude to overcome that. Today I do powerlifting with an experienced coach who understands the issue and is able to help me push through. My stamina and strength have increased to the point where my entire self-definition has changed, along with my expectations.

    What we say to ourselves about what we’re feeling while exercising makes a big difference. Apropos of that, here’s an recent article from the New York Times addressing that I think is relevant to this discussion:

  4. Such a good post! I love to exercise. I love everything about what it does for me. But, I hate starting to exercise. And at various times of my life, the “starting” does me in. And I really hate starting when I haven’t started in awhile. Cause it hurts all over again. But I love this post, as I currently sit here, probably in the worst shape I’ve ever been in. (arthritis and busy life can do that to you), because yes, especially as a former more fit person, it is so easy to get into that mindset of “well, I can’t run/hike/bike this “much” so what’s the point?”. Well, that’s it, I’m playing Dance Wii with my 9 year old today! thanks for the encouragement!

  5. I’ve been that person afraid of feeling like I’m going to die! I have a running app which allows people to set their run/walk ratio as low as 5 sec run 30 sec walk. Very few people can’t run for 5 sec. I’ve started from 30 sec walk 30 sec run for about 1 km and worked my way up to run/walking a 1/2 marathon. Baby steps indeed!

  6. I was a very physically active, and fat, teenager. And a physically active, and fat, college student. And a less physically active, and not fat, office worker from my mid-20s to my mid-30s.
    And I hated it all. Whether fat or no, whether fit or no, regardless of activity. A meaningless, purposeless, soul-sucking time to kill of boredom and despair.
    So I stopped. As I don’t live in a house, there ia no garden, yard to maintain, or any landscaping to do. There is no where to hang laundry to dry where I live. And I’m far to clumsy and uncoordinated for dancing, sports, or martial arts (I know from experience).
    I’ll walk if I need to go somewhere, but not otherwise—it’s too much of a chore already.
    In fact that’s what physical movement is nowadays, or else. Well I’d rather not live a zillion hours of boredom from exercise, because life is boring enough. I don’t care about my weight; I was equally miserable both thin and fat. It makes zero difference.

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