Most people are well aware of the numerous physical and psychological benefits of eating well and exercising. There are various theories as to why people stop despite having the best of intentions. Rather than making specific recommendations, here I hope to provide some perspective on how physical activity can work for you as an integral part of life.
Here are three common and legitimate barriers to staying fit.
We want what we want.
Many people set themselves up for failure right out of the gate by focusing on their goal rather than the process of getting there. We're naturally motivated by wanting to improve our health, appearance, or performance. But scientists have discovered that this type of motivation ebbs and flows and does little to effect long-term change.
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Most people think that achieving their goals is a matter of "wanting it bad enough," having willpower or passion. Authentic and meaningful change always demands time and effort. Successful people feel the same distractions and lack of motivation, but they don't allow daily emotions to determine their actions. They commit to the daily practice of winning small victories and they find a way to enjoy the process. They keep an eye on big-picture goals, but they lean on routine and habit (rather than, say, watching motivational videos or visualizing the end) to work through the barriers.
We get busy and bored
On popular TV shows like The Biggest Loser, an unfit person has a team of trainers, doctors, and coaches who focus on them for twelve weeks in front of a national audience. Reality is not like that.
There is stress of work and family and keeping house and environmental and social pressures, all of which last for more than 12 weeks. It is not practical for a good spouse or parent or boss or employee to focus on themselves around the clock. There are limited minutes in the day, and we're just plain tired. Is it any wonder that we cannot bear the thought of driving to the gym to do time on an elliptical machine, and we're not in the mood for an hour standing in front of a peppy DVD coach?
Exercise merely for the sake of burning calories is tedium that has little staying power. Research has shown that we all greatly over-estimate the number of calories that we burn during formal exercise.
Remember that time when you strained and dripped sweat on some exercise contraption for thirty minutes? Your face dropped when it reported that you burned 350 (or so) calories. You stepped down questioning the validity of a machines ability to estimate your effort.
The bad news is that the machines estimate was probably fairly accurate. Your body would have used almost one third of that to simply maintain itself on the couch. So all you profited from the disciplined effort was a measly 250 calories. It's often the case that half of the 250 calorie deficit is wasted on an afternoon energy drink and eating a few purple tootsie rolls on the way out of the gym.
Will you spend thirty of your limited minutes on this earth, plus preparing and driving to and from the gym, all for 150 calories? Is droning on a machine wise use of the precious time that you allot to yourself?
"There is nobody who has time for that."
-paraphrase, famous quote
Without getting into the details, a diet of high volume, nutrient dense foods is clearly the most efficient and effective way to achieve the energy balance required get in shape. Most studies find that people who are told to cut calories lose more weight than those who are told to exercise more, though a mix of diet and exercise is usually best. Also, exercise does make you hungry, although this seems to vary greatly among individuals.
If you enjoy the gym scene, have at it. The claim here is that for most people, exercise is relatively unimportant for the purposes of energy balance. You do need to exercise for many reasons, but weight loss is not one of them. And I believe that people seeing exercise as merely a way to burn calories is one of the reasons for all the burn-out.
We get injured.
Those who muster the diligence to power through these major barriers are rewarded with injury.
You can have too much of a good thing. Mechanical wear and tear on the body accelerates as we exercise with greater intensity and duration. At around three months into an exercise program, the body often begins to break down. Even gentle activities such as walking commonly cause foot and knee problems when applied for too long, too often. This is especially the case for those who often use a repetitive physical activity and lack awareness of their poor movement patterns.
Many people are also unaware of what a reasonable and sustainable fitness program would look like. Those who want results yesterday dive into the self proclaimed extreme diet and exercise regimens. Some of these require six, sixty-minute sessions of intense activity per week. I've made the claim that most people will improve drastically by starting a reasonable diet and playing horseshoes (or nearly any activity) that many days per week. Insanity soon becomes drudgery, and the solution is not the next 12-week program.
What the glamorous and extreme formulas promise in the short-term they lack in sustainability. While a home based fitness DVD program called "Reasonable" would likely not sell nearly as well as P90X or Insanity, it should. How will you look and feel not 12 weeks, but 12 months or 12 years from now?
A New Way to View Fitness
With those barriers in mind, here are three practical suggestions to help you stay in the game. Rather than relying on extreme exercise programs, meal plans, and restrictive diets, we benefit far more from periodically reflecting on what drives our beneficial and harmful patterns of behavior. This is essential because committing to a long-term active lifestyle is different and far more challenging than "getting in shape for swimsuit season" or any of the typical quick fixes. Your personal priorities, preferences, obligations, peers and environment are all far beyond any "four weeks to fit" exercise template.
1. Informal Exercise
Seek out activities that you find enjoyable or productive. Strive to do something active every day. Just move! It doesn't have to be high in intensity or effort. This can be nearly anything that does not involve a chair or electronic device. Calories are burned, for sure, but that's not the primary intent. Get lost in the garden or on the bike trail. Find a dog that needs walked, join a soccer league, Frisbee golf, Zumba, play with the kids, or pick up trash along the roadway. Finding time for activity is so much easier when there is purpose and meaning beyond building the body or burning calories. If your daily work involves a lot of physical labor, you can probably afford to skip the informal exercise.
“My own prescription for health is less paperwork and more running barefoot through the grass”
2. Formal Exercise
Settle in to a consistent formal exercise routine that supports the demands of your life at work and play. Again, calories will fly, but formal exercise is primarily for one to three days per week of body maintenance and prevention. This type of exercise is a type of prescription. It's like eating spinach and teeth flossing: you do not necessarily enjoy it but you follow through because it's good for you.
Mindless "cardio," laying on the floor doing crunches, and sitting on various exercise contraptions do not count for much. Think of targeted flexibility, strength, and balance activities that keep your body functioning well. Movement quality is of utmost important, and this is where you may want to consult a movement specialist to obtain a specific flexibility and strength program that's based upon your individual goals, body movement, and activity demands.
3. Goals Edit
Think through and create fitness goals that are based on what you do rather than something you are. For example, rather than "get in shape," you may want to be able to do a full pull-up or run a 5K in less than 30 minutes. If you want to lost 10 or 20 pounds, make a goal of scheduling 60 minutes, 6 days per week for informal or formal activity. Instead of falling for an extreme diet, create small daily habits like "eating a healthy breakfast and not snacking before dinner."
4. Set yourself up for success.
What refreshes you? Will the camaraderie and accountability of a partner or group help you stay the course? Some people thrive off the social aspect of fitness while others prefer having space to breath and think. Whether or not you exercise with someone, share your goals with a trusted friend.
If you take the time to exercise and eat well, it's likely that some other part of your life will have to go. Think through this ahead of time and set up a three month schedule that reflects your top priorities.
Do what you need to do to stay active, because it truly is that important.
“Those who think they have no time for exercise will sooner or later find time for illness.”
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Poor compliance and high drop out of those who begin a fitness routine:
Trost, S.G., et al. 2002. Correlates of adults’ participation in physical activity: Review and update. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34 (12), 1996–2001.
Extrinsic motivation does not last:
Different ways that people deal with a lack of motivation:
Whaley, D.E., & Schrider, A.F. 2005. The process of adult exercise adherence: Self-perceptions and competence. The Sport Psychologist, 19, 148–63.
Wilson, K., & Brookfield, D. 2009. Effect of goal setting on motivation and adherence in a six-week exercise program. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology, 6, 89–100.
Better results from exercise plus diet rather than exercise alone:
Obesity 22; 325, 2014 PLos One 2014, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109849
Intermittent exercise is better maintained than sustained exercise: