Thoughts on exercise for people who hate exercise

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Well, another new year is upon us, and a lot of people are going to be making new year’s resolutions to get in shape (or get back in shape).  As it turns out, I’m going to be too, although not for any reasons related to the new year (I’ve never been particularly big on new year resolutions), but because my body is reminding me of the reasons why I need to keep in minimally decent shape.

Now, I’m not a fitness expert by any stretch of the imagination, but as many of you know, that’s never kept me from pontificating on other topics.  And, since exercise is on my mind these days, I have a few thoughts on the subject, related to people like me who don’t particularly enjoy it.

Thought, the first: An exercise program that you can stick to is vastly superior to one that you will burnout on in a few short weeks.  I’m currently in my late forties, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve embarked with maximum enthusiasm on a new workout routine with maximum intensity, and then quit a month or two later.

Oh, I always had a good excuse why I didn’t continue, usually related to time pressures or something along those lines.  In my more self effacing moments, I admitted to having an attack of laziness.  But looking back, most of the time, the reality was that I simply burned myself out, exercising beyond my current level of fitness.

The workout routines I’ve been able to stick to for extended periods were ones where I worked within my current comfort level but maybe toward the end pushed slightly into discomfort.  That relatively easy approach led to fitness gains, and kept me on board.  Of course, as I mentioned above, I did eventually fall off the wagon, but it was almost always because I forgot my initial cautious approach, got impatient, and started regularly going far into that discomfort zone, leading to burnout.

This principle applies to just about any kind of exercise you might be doing.  For cardio, it means working at an intensity that is comfortable except for perhaps the last minute or so of the workout, and backing off if you err on the too intense side.  For stretching, it means stretching to where you feel a pleasing but perhaps slightly uncomfortable stretch, but without pain.  For weight lifting, it means using a weight that that is comfortable until that slightly to moderately uncomfortable last rep.

Of course, there are people who thrive on pushing themselves to the limit.  They tend to either have advantageous genetics, have essentially been in excellent shape their entire lives (making it difficult for them to sympathize with people struggling to get back into it), or are taking some kind of performance enhancing drugs.  The problem for people who hate exercise, is that most of the people in the fitness industry tend to fall into one of those categories.  Phrases like “train to failure”, “push past the pain barrier”, or “no pain, no gain” tend to originate from them.  That’s not to say that there aren’t voices who advocate moderation, but too many follow the drill sergeant approach.

Bob Glover in his excellent ‘The Runner’s Handbook‘ said it best: overload gently.  Give your body a chance to adapt to that gentle overload, and when the effort that led to it becomes easy, push a little further out.  Over time, that pushing just a little further out adds up.  Ignore the (usually) yelling fitness gurus who urge you to push yourself to the limit.

Thought the second: This is closely related to the first thought, but deserves its own section.  Never exercise through pain.  Ever.  At least, unless you have a competent physical therapist urging you to do so.  (Even then, consider getting a second opinion if a therapist seems indifferent to your pain when prescribing a program.)  Ignore the no pain, no gain crowd; they are not your friends.

Unfortunately, I have direct experience on this one.  It’s why I have some of the issues I do.  When my shoulder first started bothering me years ago, I ignored it.  When it insisted on being noticed, I took ibuprofen to shut it up so I could get through my workouts.  Big mistake.  Trust me on this one.  You don’t want to go where that road leads.

Thought the third: Remember the Pareto Principle.  That principle says that you usually get 80% of the benefits from 20% of the effort.  Whatever your fitness goals, you can get most of the way there with a modest effort.

So why do people do the other 80%?  Usually because of competition.  If you want to win a marathon, an Ironman triathlon, a powerlifting or weight lifting competition, or some other kind of sporting event, then that other 80% is necessary.  But if you just want to look and feel better, then you can probably get by with a lot less effort.

For example, for years I alternated between running, bicycling, and other forms of cardio.  As I described above, I often burned out and quit.  Now, and successfully for the last few years, I walk (briskly), which I can do during lunch break at work while listening to some of my favorite podcasts.  (Living in the deep south, I do have to break up the walks during the summer months.)  Walking is much easier, I’ve never been in danger or burnout from it, and I get most of the benefits I felt from the more strenuous forms.

Well, those are my thoughts on exercise.  I’d be interested to know yours, particularly if like me, you don’t really enjoy exercise, and especially if you have nevertheless found a way to succeed at it.

34 thoughts on “Thoughts on exercise for people who hate exercise

  1. The best technique I ever found was to have a workout buddy or a “working” dog that requires exercise to stay sane. (Something a lot of people don’t get: if your dog — once past teething — is chewing your stuff, it’s bored and needs more exercise.)

    A buddy helps you get past those days when you “don’t feel like it.” A dog is a commitment, and that’s really the important thing: making a commitment. Having a buddy or a dog just helps one keep that commitment.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like the sound of the dog idea. But something I’ve encountered is that dogs can be out of shape too. Puppies, and dogs that have been idle for a long time, need to be eased into it, just like us.

      Human buddies I’ve found to be a mixed blessing. When my workout partner was committed, I was definitely more committed, for all the reasons you mention. But when they slacked off, I felt enabled to skip myself. And it’s very easy for the wrong workout buddy to incite you into overtraining. (“Come on, you can grind out one more rep!”)

      Still, if you’re going somewhere where you’re surrounded by friends, it makes a big difference. The most enjoyable gym membership I ever had was a year or two after graduating high school, at a gym where most of my old school friends still worked out.


  2. I agree with you entirely. People are inherently lazy, so exercise must be pleasurable, otherwise you’ll never stick at it. If you can find a pace that you enjoy, you’ll keep exercising. You may not become an Olympic athlete, but you’ll stay fit, which I think is the whole point. It’s easy to get tempted into competitive behaviour and imagine that your goal is to win races. In your late forties (like me too), your goal should not be to win races!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. For me, the second thought is the most important – I used to do gymnastics and cheerleading, and I never really could distinguish between the normal aches and pains of exercise (feeling the burn, as it were), and true injury. You just sort of were in pain a lot, and no one really ever stopped.

    Let’s just say I’ve now got weak ankles, a bad back, and as an adult have danced myself to a broken foot (and other injuries) for no good reason at all, and also have given up on perfectly safe exercise routines because I’ve been afraid of getting injured again when I feel the slightest discomfort. I’ve realized that I have to spend a lot of time reflecting on whether I’m feeling a good pain or a bad pain before making a decision.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. Thanks for your thoughts.

      I think a lot of athletes do ignore pain (good or bad). Of course, they are motivated to win, and pain is just something they see as having to endure to get there. Many spend the rest of their lives paying for it with chronic injuries.

      Personally, I’m leery of the “good pain” thing. Active athletes might have to experience it in competition, and so occasionally in training (although elite athletes are careful to cycle their training so they don’t get too much of it), but I think the rest of us can stay away from it. We only have to skirt the mildest edges of it so we know our current limits, and then only if we’re not satisfied with our current level of fitness.


  4. I never used to like exercise and was overweight for nearly all my life, except for those few years at the beginning when I simply hadn’t had time to shove the requisite amount of food in my face yet. Just this year I lost 20 lbs from doing Zumba, and running and dieting. It was hard, I’m not gonna lie. Really hard. The dieting was probably key, truth be told, but they go hand in hand since muscle burns more calories. I’m still counting calories, keeping it at 1200/day (rarely succeeding, but at least not going too far off track). You will not need to go that low on the calories—I’m 5 ft tall and 123 lbs, so that’s why. If you download MyFitnessPal (it’s free), you can plug in your stats and it will tell you how many calories you need to meet your goals. Keeping a log on MFP is not super accurate, but the mere act of having to plug it all in makes you more aware of what you’re eating. I’m also wearing a fitness monitor, but it’s basically crap so far as I can tell. For instance, it said I walked three miles yesterday when all I did was sit around. Maybe I flail my arms about when I sit around, I don’t know.

    I can tell you that the monitoring thing really works, but it’s hard to stick to. My husband hates the whole idea and won’t even weigh himself. When we had our little Biggest Loser competition, he lost weight very quickly because he started to weigh himself (he never did count calories, though). Now he’s stopped, and he’s not losing weight anymore, even though he goes to the gym every other day for 2+ hours at a time. After my experiences this year, I’m inclined to say that monitoring and weighing in is the most important thing, at least for me. I know, it really sucks.

    Running is great for burning those calories, so I got into it when I was plateau-ing, but it’s really bad on the knees and kind of boring for me. Zumba never left me feeling horrible, and I could do it every day since I never got bored with it…I actually look forward to it and miss it. Now I know you’re not gonna want to take Zumba, most guys don’t, but I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s actually more like playing a video game rather than dancing. You just try to memorize patterns, so you never get bored. If you’re uncertain about the Zumba thing, there are workout videos on Netflix, but they’re full of silly Barbie-type girls screaming and jumping around and smiling too much. There’s also a few other kinds of videos…you might want to check them out if you have Netflix. Also I hear the Wii is good for exercise. I’ve never tried it.

    There’s also spinning classes, since you mentioned cycling. That might be more up your alley. It’s good if you live in a place where the weather’s unpredictable. I took it once, but I thought it was too hard. It felt like someone had kicked me in the butt, literally. I also took kickboxing, which was okay, but the guy who taught it was a cage fighter, so his standards were pretty intense. Boot camp, Insanity…oh lord did these hurt. These never caught on for me, for the reasons you give. Zumba’s much easier.

    Walking is also great, but try to get your heart rate up from time to time by walking faster or taking on some hills.

    Now I’m having this mysterious two month long bout of lightheadedness which prevents me from doing any sort of exercise for fear of passing out. Just in time for New Year’s resolutions!


    1. Tina, that’s awesome! Glad you found something that worked so well for you. Zumba looks interesting. I’m too old to care about what a form of exercise looks like, but I’ve never been much for exercise classes. I tried aerobics classes in the 90s but always wanted to go off and do my own thing.

      I totally agree that if your goal is weight loss, constant monitoring is key. When I diet for weight loss, I check my weight every morning. Many say that that’s too often, but I find keeping my current weight in mind made a difference, and I quickly learned the current range of weights I might see, and when I saw a weight lower than that range, it made for a happy day. I currently could stand to lose 20-30 pounds, but I have to get my orthopedic fitness back first.

      On cardio, I alternated between running and cycling for a couple of years. In one sense, I was in the best shape of my life when running, but I was also suffering from ankle, knee, back, and stomach problems, and my shoulder problems started during that time. In fact, it was the shoulder problems that finally forced me to give up running.

      Walking is my cardio solution, but I do get my heart rate up when weight lifting. It may not be the best exercise, but I have the equipment and know how to do it. And much of my current rehab exercises are basically light versions of what I’ll be doing in those workouts making (hopefully) a smooth transition from one to the other.

      I hope you’re seeing a doctor about the lightheadedness. A friend of mine just went through a similar spell and eventually learned that they had a serious vitamin deficiency and electrolyte problem.


      1. I’m so glad to hear you don’t care what form the exercise takes—that’s exactly the way I felt when I started Zumba. It’s wonderful not being in my 20s anymore! So many stupid hangups and worries about my future identity are now out of my life, and I’m free to make an ass of myself whenever I please.

        I don’t think weighing in once a day is too much. I probably weigh myself five times a day when I’m really dieting. And you’re right about that range thing. Seeing that weight loss happening is encouraging, but how will you know if you don’t look regularly?

        Running always seems to cause problems for me, but like you said, it was also good in a certain way. I don’t think I would have lost as much weight without it. Sometimes I’d come back from a long run and find I’d lost a pound just from that. I had also gotten to the point where I could run about eight miles. That seems so long ago!

        Cycling is also very good, but I’m too worried I’ll get hit by a crazy driver or just fall on my own. Still, it’s excellent exercise. There’s a guy in the neighborhood with Parkinson’s, and cycling reversed a lot of his problems (at least temporarily). He’s in his 60s and I went out for a ride with him. He suggested that we race, and he utterly kicked my ass. Which was odd because when he walks, he shuffles a bit and is fairly slow, so this was unexpected. I hope it made him feel good to know he beat a healthy 30 year old!

        I need to do more weight lifting for my upper back problem. I just find it so dull and I haven’t been able to stick to a routine. I have rubber bands and 5 lb weights next to the TV so that maybe I’ll remember. But I usually just look at these things and think, “Oh yeah, I should do that. Meh.” I find watching shows like Arrow or Marco Polo help me get motivated with the weight lifting (there are a lot of fight scenes that get me all keyed up.) 🙂

        My husband, on the other hand, really enjoys weightlifting. He doesn’t mind doing repetitive things. I hope it works out for you and you can stick with it! As I always tell my husband, be careful. Especially with your injury. Slow and steady, right?

        I’m seeing a doctor tomorrow. I went last week and they took labs and found nothing wrong with me. The doc said to drink sports drinks with electrolytes. I did, nothing changed. In fact, things got worse and I ended up puking on Sunday night, just out of the blue. This random vomiting has been happening all year. So we’ll see what he says. I’ve of course been doing a lot of Googling and coming up with conversation threads with a lot of hypochondriacs airing their grievances in barely readable prose. (Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people used punctuation marks and wrote in complete sentences?)


        1. I’m not sure anything burns up calories like running. When I was running, it was the one time in my life where I could have been described as lean. If I could have done it without the aches and pains, it would have been awesome.

          One thing I do like about weight lifting in comparison to most cardio exercise is that you move through several exercises throughout the workout. It’s much more of a slog when dieting and strength gains are unlikely, although I still do it then to retain as much lean muscle as possible. Thanks for the slow and easy recommendation. Definitely my plan, and my recommendation to anyone else who embarks on that kind of exercise.

          Best of luck in finding out what the issue is. It’s really frustrating when they do tests and can’t find anything. On the one hand you dread what they might find, but on the other knowing what it is at least would tell you what needs to be done.

          One other thing, just in case you’re still dieting. I had a cousin who had been dieting for a long time, and started to have a host of health problems. Almost all of them went away a few weeks after he upped his calorie count into maintenance mode. You might already be doing that, but I thought it was worth mentioning.


          1. “On the one hand you dread what they might find, but on the other knowing what it is at least would tell you what needs to be done.”

            That’s exactly what I’m going through.

            You know, I’m still dieting, but I’m not losing weight, even though My Fitness Pal says I should be. So it feels like I am in maintenance mode. I’m afraid to stop dieting, especially since I have no other means of keeping the weight off at the moment.

            I have to admit that this calorie stuff is pretty confusing. I brought my calorie count down to 700 when I did the Biggest Loser thing, but I didn’t lose that much weight and My Fitness Pal kept yelling at me that I was putting myself into starvation mode. I was stupid and didn’t listen. Then I got sick and stopped dieting, no exercise, and I lost 5 lbs, which put me at 120. (Oh how I would have loved to see that scale dip to 119 just once!) Of course, I lost muscle, not fat, so no big win. Now I’m a few pounds heavier (probably not muscle) and I’ve gone back to the calorie counting—a normal 1200, not 700—and with this I’m just hoping to stay the same until I figure out what’s going on with the lightheadedness.

            I fear that if I want to lose more weight, I’ll have to go back to running. Right now, though, everything’s on hold until I go to the doctor tomorrow.


    2. Based on my own experience, it actually sounds like your metabolism might still be in starvation mode. Going back to 15 calories per pound of ideal body weight for a few months can reset it. It might also make you feel better, able to exercise again, and you might be surprised how good you look after a week or two at that level of intake.

      Anyway, I’d consider discussing it with the doctor. Best of luck. I hope they can find something.


        1. That sounds right. The 15 is a good rule of thumb. If you’re spending several hours a week working out, it might have to be higher. The only way to be sure is track your calories and weight, but usually just continuing to weigh in does the trick. Remember too that you might weigh a little bit more with more food in your system and with your muscles more fueled up and energized, even though no fat necessarily got added.

          Good luck!


          1. So I’m going to see a neurologist. Apparently it might be a brain tumor. I’m feeling oddly okay with this because I knew it would come to these kinds of tests. But anyways, the doctor told me not to exercise. He also said the dieting didn’t matter and I can continue. Strange, huh? My husband vetoed the dieting, so I’ll go back to eating normally just to pacify him…he’s really panicking.


    3. Tina, I’m really sorry to hear that. I very much hope they find out it’s something less serious, or that it can be treated non-invasively. Please do everything you can to take care of yourself. If there’s anything an internet buddy can do to help, please let me know.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks so much! You are so kind.

        I spent a few minutes in the car freaking out—worst case scenario popping into my mind—but quickly decided it wasn’t worth worrying about. Especially since it could take a very long time to get in with the neurologist and it could end up being nothing. Stoicism isn’t top on my list of philosophies, but it comes in very handy in times like these. What’s the point in worrying when there’s nothing I can know or do? I might as well try to put it out of my mind. Now if I could just get my husband to stop coming in every five minutes to ask if I’m okay. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It sounds like you have a good handle on it. The latest Rationally Speaking podcast talked about Stoicism, and I’ve been meaning to learn more about it. It sounds like it definitely has its uses, particularly in these types of situations. Regarding your husband, good to know have someone looking after you.


          1. I was surprised to learn about Stoicism being used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I was sort of surprised to find how popular it is, at least in the blogosphere. When we read about Stoicism in class, very few people liked it, and several criticized it pretty harshly. I saw a good deal that’s reasonable about it. I can’t see myself adopting it as a worldview, but in particular cases it’s very useful, especially those cases in which you know exactly what you can and can’t control. The protagonist of my novel is a Stoic (in a very loose way) but he also has tendencies to simply stick his head in the sand. And of course the rest of the novel turns on his involvement in campus politics, intentional or otherwise.

            My husband is very sweet and he’s the best nurse around (having suffered a lot himself lately, he knows what it’s like). However, he has tendencies to hit the panic button in a big way. I explained to him that the best way to help me is to remain normal. I know he won’t be able to do this…last night he kept telling me he loved me, very emphatically, which made me feel like I was on my death bed! I’m sure he’ll calm down in time. It’s going to be the waiting game now.

            I’ve been thinking about what the doctor said. It would have been better if he had simply said, “I’m referring you to a neurologist because I don’t know what’s going on” instead of, “It could be a brain tumor.” Not cool, man, not cool. And of course, once he said “brain tumor” I couldn’t concentrate on anything he said afterwards.

            Thanks for your kind words and letting me go off topic to vent!


        2. “The protagonist of my novel is a Stoic (in a very loose way) but he also has tendencies to simply stick his head in the sand.”
          That’s been my concern with Stoicism every time I’ve cursorily read about it, that, in some ways similar to Buddhism, it seems chiefly concerned with making yourself serene with circumstances rather than changing them. Massimo in the podcast seemed to indicate that this is a misreading of it, that part of it is figuring out what you can or can’t change, and then making yourself serene about what can’t be changed. My remaining concern is that often we can’t know whether change is possible, and if in doubt, it seems reasonable that we should try, but I’m not sure how Stoic that is.

          “Thanks for your kind words and letting me go off topic to vent!”
          Anytime. Again, the very best of luck to you.


          1. Your concerns about Stoicism are exactly what I think! How do you find that limit of control without testing, trying? Sometimes the situation is perfectly clear, other times it’s not. I’d say most times it’s not.

            Maybe to be fair to Stoicism, we should say you get to bang your head against the wall once, just to know it’s there. Bang your head more than that, you’re acting irrationally.

            Well, maybe I should make three the magic number. I’m a slow learner. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Also, it helps if you enjoy the activities.

    Ignore the no pain, no gain crowd; they are not your friends.

    I’m inclined to disagree here. Not that you necessarily should follow that crowd, but there are different kinds of pain…


    1. Very much agreed on enjoying the activities.

      I actually think referring to the discomfort of fatigue as pain is an unfortunate practice. It leads to the dangerous confusion of the kind Michelle describes above. And it implies that painful fatigue is desirable. It may be necessary at times for competitive athletes, but I can’t see that it’s necessary for someone exercising for health and general fitness.

      But maybe I’m missing something?


      1. Eh, you’re probably right about that. I personally didn’t find it confusing, but I guess others can/do. And I’m the one who was advocating having separate words for separate meanings for clarity… 😉

        I don’t know that “ignore them” is exactly right, so much as understand the intended meaning, and perhaps try to change the nomenclature?


        1. It’s one of those phrases that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Your interpretation of it is the sane one.

          But I remember in the 80s when everyone was first saying it, along with “feel the burn”. It was meant pretty literally that unless you exercised to the point of pain (mere fatigue or achiness was deemed insufficient), you weren’t serious and weren’t going to make progress. I knew guys who bragged that they had worked out so hard they vomited. I still hear of plenty of people like that today.

          It worked for a few people either with good genetics or on steroids, but most of us just burned out (or worse) and gave up on the exercise thing. The older guys just shook their heads at us, but we ignored them, despite the fact that many of them were actually in pretty good shape.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. People I know who regard working out with distaste maintain their good shape by being constantly on their feet, doing things that would induce sweat, like housework or some manual labor. Physical movement is something I’m comfortable with — which makes exercise an awesome activity, in my opinion. I like moving around and am quite fond of going places on foot. The thing is, for several weeks now, I’ve been experiencing pain in my soles whenever I walk. Looking back, I wouldn’t think twice about long-distance strolls and carrying heavy backpacks in my younger years. My lifelong love for Coke, my recent addiction to milk tea and minimal intake of calcium might count as reasons, too.
    It’s frustrating to realize there’s always a price to be paid for trying to be physically fit; Something will give soon.


    1. Excellent points. I remember reading something a while back that a study of old time bus workers compared the long term health of drivers versus ticket checkers. Ticket checkers by far were healthier and longer lived, largely, it was thought, due to their moving around all day as compared to drivers who just sat the entire time.

      Best of luck with the sole pain. Be sure to get someone to look at it if it sticks around.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. I think you have a very interesting blog because of your diverse topics — plus I get to learn (from you and your commenters) many of the issues I took for granted during my academic years.
        Happy New Year! More power to your blog.


  7. I’ve burned out a few too many times, and right now I’m dealing with a shoulder injury that’s probably exercise related. I’m going to start trying to stick to that Pareto Principle.


    1. Best of luck. If it’s been around for a while and if you haven’t seen one before, I’d recommend seeing a physical therapist. Often shoulder issues are related to muscle strength imbalances between the chest and back or between the rotator cuff muscles.


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