fitness · motivation · You Ask

You Ask, Fit Feminists Answer: I hate exercise but it’s good for me. What should I do?

I shared Yoni Freedhoff’s How to be Healthy, in Just 48 Words on our Facebook page. A reader question for “You ask, Fit Feminists Answer.”

Seven of those words are “Exercise as often as you can enjoy.”

Here’s his extended riff on exercise: “Though commonly only considered in the name of weight (where it’s often less helpful than feels fair), the overall health benefits of exercise are difficult to overstate. Exercise increases life span and treats or prevents many, if not most, chronic noncommunicable diseases. My exercise mantra is simple: Some is good, more is better, everything counts. It’s also most likely better to do a small amount of exercise consistently than a large amount of exercise temporarily.”

A page follower messaged me to say that if she followed this advice she’d never exercise. She hates it.

She said she hears the arguments and see that exercise is a good thing for her physical health, her mental health etc and so wants to do it, but actually hates it. She’s just doing it for instrumental benefits and takes no joy at all in it. All the advice we offer is about finding a thing you love but what she loves are movies and books and good meals. To repeat: She hates exercising.

I figured all of the blogging team have something to say on this one. I’ve had a go at it before— see here and here.

Christine: First, I commend anyone who is willing to put aside their hatred of exercise and do it for the health benefits.

If you learning to love exercise is not an option, then I wonder what you could do to make it a little less hateful?

Could you read on an exercise bike? Do strength training while watching movies? Walk to the coffee shop?

I’m thinking of the exercise as a side thing you do while you are doing something you do enjoy.

The main thing, I think, is to not be hard on yourself about hating exercise. Then, find ways to make it a little less annoying to get moving.

Marjorie: I agree with Christine Hennebury about connecting it to something you DO like may be the key in this situation. There has to be some positive reward in the near to immediate timescale or I just can’t imagine making it stick as a habit.

I would add that it sounds like the activities they like are more solitary, so it may make sense to focus on solitary activities. Don’t force yourself into a group fitness class if you don’t want to be around other people. I value my “me time” so much at the end of the day, and going to the gym gives me a blessed hour in my own head before I need to be home and interact with my husband.

So, in addition to Christine’s suggestions, I would add the exercise can be shutting yourself into a room at home to do a workout video. Or maybe better yet, doing one solo in a side room at the gym (you can find videos for free online to stream on your phone) might give the introvert time you need.

Nicole:

While I hear people all the time say they don’t enjoy exercise, I find it hard to believe there isn’t something out there that they might enjoy. I think it’s fair that they don’t enjoy what is traditionally considered exercise (gym-based, running, etc), but given the importance in movement for health, I think it’s worth trying different things, until hopefully something sticks.
Do they like group activities? Perhaps they can find a group walk, or a group dance class? Have they tried pool aerobics?


I like Christine’s suggestions for incorporating exercise in other activities you enjoy – walking to a movie, doing push ups while watching a movie at home, reading a book on a stationary bike. Make it a reward system – 15 minutes on a stationary bike – I get to watch a double-header! Etc.

Natalie:

Some advice I’ve gathered from others:
-get a dog & walk it every day. Companionship, the dog needs you and it can be intriguing to see the world from their point of view. Daily walking/rolling is enough exercise to get health benefits. If it gets too easy add a weighted backpack or go faster (warning: this could lead to running!) or go longer.

The “off like a bandaid” approach. Short, high intensity training to get max return on your effort while minimizing the minutes you hate about your life. Stair intervals of walking up, rundown, run up, run down then 2 at a time up, run down. Repeat until exhaustion
Instantly gets your cardio up.

Go strengths based approach. What do you love? Cooking? Then volunteer at a community meal chopping, lugging ingredients and slinging grub. It’s movement. It counts!
Ditto on community clean up days and other volunteering.

One friend loves hunting so they use that activity to ground their routine and work up to the walking distance.

Connect to a cause. There are walks, runs, bicycle tours that raise funds for charity. Look at your chosen community and see if there is an event you can participate in that honours someone you know. Or train with that friend to support their endeavors.

Chores for your friends & neighbours. Shoveling snow sucks. But meeting a neighbour & helping them out is awesome. Ditto bringing in wood or groceries for them.

Dancing with friends and family.

Sex!!!

Susan: It doesn’t need to be sweaty, especially at the beginning. It doesn’t need to be in a gym. Walking is the easiest best thing that is good for body and mind. I actually agree that a dog is the best way to get yourself to walk and also has other benefits but even if there is no dog, put the boots on (cleats if it’s icy) bundle up and walk for an hour. Remember to swing your arms. Listen to an audio book. Easy, not too sweaty, excellent start.

Sam: I do a lot of exercise I don’t enjoy and so I’ve stopped with the “find the thing you love mantra” mostly. I don’t love knee physio or toe physio. But I do want to travel and walk up hills in new cities. I hate the idea of not being able to hike in the future. So lots of the exercise I do now is tied to being able to do things I love in the future. Exercise for the sake of living longer means more books and more movies in your life. It’s okay to exercise for instrumental reasons.

Having said that, I’d then figure out what is necessary–strength training for bone health, cardio for heart health, something for flexibility and mobility– and then regular, everyday exercise. I’d make a plan and then find ways to minimize misery in the execution of that plan. Music!

Catherine: I agree with what all the bloggers said. Here’s a thought: get a cheap fitbit (my fake-o knockoff one cost $30) and start noting your step counts (or use your phone). You may find that doing a little here and there will add up to more than you thought you did. You may find it interesting to set a few goals from time to time– like 4000 steps a day– and see what that feels like. Recent studies show benefits for women who do 4000 steps a day (vs less than 2500). Maybe add in a few stairs here and there, or go out of your way to take slightly longer routes to places you go. If you find yourself doing 4000-7000, yay for you! That’s great. There’s nothing magic about 10000 steps a day. You’ll find where you settle in and what works for you. Yes, there will be some higher and lower count days. That’s life, and you’re doing it.

Cate: All of these ideas, especially attaching movement to something you already like to do, are great. (E.g., go to the gym and watch a favourite tv show while walking on a treadmill; listen to your favourite podcast while going for a walk). Another thought I have comes from people I’ve known who hate exercise who say things like “I went to yoga and they told me how to BREATHE. I know how to BREATHE.” I recommend trying a little dose of beginner’s mind and curiosity — like you are exploring a new country or something, rather than taking on something you already know you don’t like. Like, what could you discover by breathing differently? What does that actually feel like? What could you find by taking the subway or driving to a neighbourhood you’ve never been in and going for a walk there? Can you be an anthropologist and watch people doing an activity with curiosity, like you’ve never seen such a thing before, and see what you observe? I find treating it like an adventure, not a task, can open up some new things.

Tracy: Something really simple that I think is helpful (and encouraged by the 220 in 2020 style groups): don’t call it “exercise”. Call it “movement” and just add a little of it every day, even if it’s walking your dog or walking to some place you would normally drive. Maybe you’ll start to love it or find something that you want to do more of and maybe you won’t, but to me “exercise” right away has baggage that lots of us need to lose.

I’ve also found it helpful to make a game of adding stuff. Like if I ran 20 minutes last week can I do 25 this week? But maybe that’s more advanced of a motivation strategy than someone who thinks they hate every activity can use to keep at it.

Okay readers, what do you recommend?

I searched Unsplash for “sad face” and got this image of a sad looking pug in a blanket. I couldn’t not share him. Enjoy.

4 thoughts on “You Ask, Fit Feminists Answer: I hate exercise but it’s good for me. What should I do?

  1. Yes, feeling free to hate exercise is my jam! I wrote about this for Sam and Tracy’s special issue of IJFAB, and agreed that “find what you love” is not at all helpful if we need to do something whether we enjoy it or not. But I was happy to say then, and still believe, that it really is good news that we can come to enjoy something after we habituate it, and it’s more possible to, first, find out what you can do habitually, try things and see what you can make a practice in a consistent way. That helps to bring about a desire to maintain that habit in the long run.

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  2. I have ‘exercise only” tv shows. As in – I can only watch an episode if I’m on my bike (stationary trainer). This works especially well when I’m addicted to a show. My dog is probably my biggest motivator for exercise when I’m not in the mood. If you like animals, you can always find shelters/rescue groups that need foster homes or even people to take dogs out for walks/playtime.

    I agree with everyone else who said to not discount everyday movement. Walk more, carry your groceries rather than using a cart, dance while you vacuum/clean your house. It all counts!

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  3. Mostly I’m curious about *why* this person hates exercise, or what specifically she hates about it, because I think that holds the key to how to get around it. Is she self-conscious? Does it hurt? Is her definition of exercise too narrow? Is she holding herself to super high standards? Does she feel shamed or left out? Does she hate all movement, or just some kinds? Does she feel stupid because she doesn’t know how to do it right? Is she dealing with holdover trauma from horrible gym classes in elementary school? etc, etc. The answers here could then be across whole spectrum – like in one case she might do really well to hire a personal trainer, or in another she might do really well to never set foot in a gym.

    Some of my reasons for hating exercise, at different points in my life, have been as varied as:
    1) For most of my young life, the people around me saw team sports as the only valid kind of exercise, and I’d rather put a fork in my eye. Solution: discovering all the solo exercise possibilities, like yoga, running, swimming, etc.
    2) For a long time, my body was in so much pain I couldn’t find movement that didn’t hurt. Solution: I needed a lot of medical intervention before that changed.
    3) Some kinds of gym culture are wicked sexist and fatphobic. Solution: a lot of cycling and yoga with an instructor in her 70s who’s really not interested in weight loss.

    And so on. So I would encourage this person to really take a hard look at the root of the exercise hate, and ask herself what alternatives might be that would avoid or reduce whatever that thing is or add rewards that would help balance it out.

    And don’t be afraid of rewards that are absolutely unrelated to the exercise itself. I chose my bike because she was pretty and green, and I had a lovely vision of what it would be like to swan around town on her wearing cute dresses with a basket full of flowers. My love of fashion and aesthetics in general was a huge motivation, and I knew that if I catered to that, I’d end up getting more exercise. And holy hell did it ever work. So I make no apologies for my rather shallow motivation. Do what gets you moving! 😀

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