exercise motivation

Why can’t I stick to exercise?

Have you ever gone on a health kick and fallen off the wagon? Whether it’s a New Year’s Resolution or you’re just “starting next Monday”, so many of us decide to get active, go hard for a few weeks, then give up. Despite knowing that exercise is good for us, only half of us regularly do enough exercise to stay healthy. So why do we struggle?

How much exercise should you be doing?

It’s recommended that you participate in at least 30 minutes of exercise and physical activity on most (five) days of the week. Not only can doing regular exercise and physical activity improve your mental and musculoskeletal health, but it can reduce your risk of developing chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis. However, 1 in 2 Australian adults are not sufficiently active to see these benefits.

If we know regular exercise is good for us, then why is it so hard to stick with it? There are so many factors that impact our exercise participation, and these will be different for everyone. Here are a few of the main reasons people stop exercising, and how to overcome them:

I have no motivation

This is a really common reason for not exercising regularly. Your motivation will be low when exercise has a low personal value. Ask yourself, what does exercise mean to me? Why am I doing it? Perhaps you want to improve your mental health or reduce your blood pressure. Perhaps you want to be able to run 5km without stopping or be able to keep up with your grandkids. Whatever the reason, it needs to mean something to you! Don’t exercise just because you think you should be doing it.

Once you know why you’re exercising, it’s time to set goals to work towards. You should consider both short- and long-term goals. Use the short-term goals to help you stay on track on your way to achieving your long-term goal.

When setting your goals, make sure they are specific, you have a way to track your progress, and you set a realistic timeline to achieve this. An example short-term goal would be to walk 20 minutes, three times per week, within one month, which you could use to achieve a long-term goal of meeting the guidelines of 30 minutes of exercise, five times per week, within three months. You could track your progress to this goal using an exercise diary.

Once you have set your goals, it’s important to review them regularly. Ensure they still apply to you and keep you motivated to exercise. Be sure to set new goals as you achieve the old ones.

I have no time

When we have a lot going on, including work, family and/or childcare responsibilities, or study, exercise is often the first thing to go to the bottom of the to-do list. But as we know, exercise is important for our health. Try integrating exercise into your other activities of daily life. For example, take the stairs instead of the lift, walk around while you’re on the phone, do strength exercises during TV ad breaks, or walk/cycle all or part of the way to work or shopping.

In terms of structured exercise, if you can’t do a full 30-minute structured exercise session, break it up into two periods of 15 minutes that day. Overall, it’s important to remember that ANY exercise is better than no exercise.

Another exercise option for those of us who are time poor is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT involves short bursts of high intensity activity, interspersed with periods of low intensity activity or rest. HIIT sessions can be as short as 10 minutes, while still providing similar benefits to 30-minute moderate intensity sessions.

To incorporate HIIT into your program, add periods of fast running into your jog, or add hills or stairs into your walks. Overall, HIIT doesn’t mean you need to exercise to your maximum; you are just trying to increase your breathing to the point that would make it difficult to hold a conversation. If you have any underlying health conditions, you should consult a doctor or an Accredited Exercise Physiologist before attempting HIIT.

I have tried before, and I failed

You may start an exercise program strong and with the best intentions, but before you know it, you lose your way. Don’t be hard on yourself – it’s normal to go through periods where you are exercising less, but this is not a reason to give up.

Start by making a plan:

  1. When will your exercise be done? Schedule exercise into your week as you would appointments, meetings, or catch-ups with family and friends. Pick a time that suits you and your body – if you like to start your day early, schedule exercise in for the morning; if you have more energy later in the day, schedule exercise in the afternoon/evening.
  2. Where will the exercise be done? This may be at your home, a local gym, or outdoors.
  3. How will the exercise be done? Think about how long your sessions will take, and if you need specific equipment, transport, and/or clothing.

Now, make a back-up plan. Brainstorm what might get in the way of you sticking to your exercise plan and come up with potential solutions. For example, if you decide you are going to exercise outside, what other form of exercise could you do on days when it’s raining? If there are days you are not feeling up to exercise, can you reduce the length or intensity of the session (i.e., instead of jogging, can you do a short walk or Yoga)? Or can you reschedule your session for later in the week?

I don’t enjoy exercise

If you don’t enjoy something, why would you continue to do it? There are hundreds of ways for you to be physically active! You don’t need to force yourself to do an activity you don’t enjoy. Exercise does not have to mean going for a run or lift weights in the gym. Exercise could be dancing, skipping rope, swimming, group classes like Pilates, playing sport, hiking, or even yard work (mowing, raking etc). Try a few different activities until you find one you enjoy as you will be more likely to stick with it.

You could also recruit an exercise buddy. Research has shown that exercising with another person can help you to adhere to exercise because it makes exercise more enjoyable and keeps you accountable. Your exercise buddy could be a family member, friend, co-worker, a community group, or a local sports team.

Still struggling?

An Accredited Exercise Physiologist can set you on the right path, whether that be finding the type of exercise that is best for you, setting achievable goals, or keeping you accountable. Find one near you!

Written by Emily Cox. Emily is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and lecturer at the University of Newcastle.