Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research
We are surrounded by messages about the importance of physical activity. So why do so many of us have such trouble starting or sticking with a plan to be more active? Behavioral researchers and therapists report that for some people it reflects over-committed time schedules or not understanding exercise’s benefits. But others experience “a conscious or unconscious block against becoming regularly active,” referred to as “exercise resistance” by registered dietitian Francie White, MS, RD.
If exercise has become a punishment for excess weight or overeating, it is hard to find joy in it. This is a real concern, because research now points to exercise as one of the best steps we can take to stay healthy.
Keeping active can lower risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes; lessen the burden of stress and depression; and perhaps even prolong healthy brain function. Yet less than one-third of American adults exercises regularly.
Some people need to hear how important exercise really is in order to make it more of a priority. Yet for others, each time they hear about why they “should” get more active, it becomes harder to do so. White sees two general patterns: Unconscious Resistance applies to someone who sets goals, starts a program, and then sabotages it and quits. Active Refusal applies to someone who experiences anxiety or resentment when exercise is recommended.
For those with exercise resistance, physical activity may bring memories of feeling like a “klutz” because they were always picked last for teams. Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, President of Nutrition for the Future, notes that people who have tried (and often hated) treadmills, exercise bikes, gym memberships and aerobics videos often have a “block” about trying and failing again. Or exercise may have become a punishment for excess weight or overeating. Being embarrassed also leads to resistance, especially for very large individuals. For some, body movement brings memories ranging from discomfort at being ogled as they exercised to those of serious sexual abuse.
Depending on how strongly entrenched the exercise resistance, some people may be able to recognize it on their own and consciously re-think how they approach exercise. Others may need individual or group therapy to reflect on the roots of their aversion to exercise and to formulate a new approach. Experts emphasize that people need to understand and validate the reasons for their resistance before they can move on.
The key, these experts agree, is to restore physical activity to its status as play, removing the rules and pressures related to how fast, how long and how far. We need to focus on the joy of movement and the increased energy we feel when active. While exercise indeed does affect weight, when we mentally tie it to weight control, the fun tends to disappear. For some people, even talking about the health benefits of exercise is enough to turn it from fun to drudgery.
For those who have been exercise resistant and feel ready to try a new approach, the best ways to become more comfortable with movement are fun, unstructured, non-competitive activities. Examples include gardening; playing catch or frisbee with a dog, child, or friend; dancing; and taking walks that focus on picking flowers or looking for new landscaping ideas. “Change the ‘E’ word from exercise to enjoyment,” urges Hayes.