One of my clients tells me every time we meet how much she hates our workouts (despite, you know, having trained for nine months and having told me she only stays at the gym for me). It’s a nerve-wracking statement nonetheless, in part because you don’t want a person to despise the things you do with them three hours a week. Plus, with a desk job that keeps her stuck on day-long business trips and fourteen-hour meetings, a new relationship that gets her side-tracked nutritionally, and the usual health risks that come with excess body fat and a sedentary lifestyle, she needs the physical activity.
Still, I don’t really think there’s a point to doing a form of exercise if you hate it.
Hear me out: I am not saying that you should avoid all cardio if you hate getting your heart rate up, or it’s a-ok to skip strength training if counting reps bores you and you’d rather be on the elliptical watching The Wire. But there are a number of trainers and other health professionals who create a dogma out of what types of exercise you should be doing for optimal health. Fitness magazines are constantly showing off the latest fad, be it CrossFit or ballet-barre-what-have-you or non-seizure-inducing yoga. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard colleagues denounce everything from morning runs to Body Pump.
Now, maybe it’s a question of target audience. When you’re talking to someone who has been working out regularly for a while, then discussing the semantics of “the perfect exercise routine” is probably a little more likely to create the desired effects, since the person may actually enjoy exercising for the sake of exercising and be at a place where they geek out and get excited by modifying what they do.
But 60% of Americans don’t meet recommended daily activity requirements, and 25% get none at all. This group, folks like my client, is the one that needs help getting into a routine period, and worry about the fine tuning later. One of the blogs I read regularly belongs to Yoni Freedhoff, a bariatric doctor who’s helped many people make lasting changes that improve their health; he explains the matter very well: if you don’t like a change you’re making to your lifestyle, chances are you won’t keep with it.
Back to my client: What does it mean when she, like many Americans, “hates” to exercise? In her case, I become particularly confused because, despite all other factors in her lifestyle, she’s very athletic. She was active growing up and has the fluency of movement that comes with that early introduction to exercise. Without much thought, she can perform various feats of balance, speed through complicated agility drills, and lift weights that dwarf the ones other women use. On the off chance I underestimate the level of challenge in an exercise I give her, she’ll let me know, because she doesn’t want to slack and has no fear of strenuous activity or discomfort. So why, if she’s so talented at exercise, does she dislike it so much?
In part, I know, it’s because she first associates exercise with weight loss. She’s put on enough body fat over the years that, now in her thirties, she’s on track for serious health issues if she sticks with her mostly-sedentary lifestyle. At risk of making this blog sound like a broken record, it seems that the lack of enjoyment comes, in part, because she’s choosing her exercise based solely on what she’s supposed to do to shed pounds—even though she prefers things like playing in team sports and going for hikes. And while, yes, it is important to consider the effect excess body fat has on disease risk, it seems like it would be hard for anybody to stick with a program if your main purpose in doing it is because you see it as a way to fix something that’s “wrong” with yourself.
You know what it reminds me of? I had this friend in college who was interested in the same guy as me; he and I ended up dating, and she would make comments to me like, “Well, I see now that he and I couldn’t date, because people usually end up with partners who are about as attractive as they are, and he really isn’t that attractive. Like dates like and all that.” Needless to say, we didn’t stay friends much longer after that. If you wouldn’t hang out with a person who calls you ugly, why would you spend your time doing an activity that makes you think about how fat you are?
I could tell myself that the friend was invaluable to talk to about school stuff, or good to go to for advice about what to wear, but, ultimately, there’s only so many passive-aggressive comments you can take before they override the benefits of the friendship. Similarly, I can tell myself that working out will make it easier to get to my third floor apartment in my walk-up, or I’m doing it to protect me from the heart disease that plagues my family, but if the primary reason I’m doing it is because I think I’m fat and don’t want to be fat anymore—and, worse, I sort of feel like this thing with my weight is a losing battle because I’ve always thought I was fat—those other points will get drowned out.
Studies have shown time and again that exercise is imperative for improved health, although it may or may not lead to weight loss. But what drives our fascination with finding a routine that is most effective—whether in burning fat or developing long, lean muscles— and is this quest for the best really helping us?
As personal trainers, we’re told to help our clients reach SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Basically, you don’t say, “I want to have more endurance,” you say, “I want to run the entirety of a 5k by the end of summer.” The stickler here is this concept of attainability: running a 5k may be an attainable goal for, say, a woman who’s been walking regularly with little spurts of jogging here and there; it may not be attainable for someone who recently tore all the ligaments in her ankle and is relegated to an air-cast for the foreseeable future.
An attainable goal, then, is finding a routine that will sound almost as appealing as sitting at home watching the latest episode of Chopped and harassing the cat with a laser pointer—even if that routine means going to Zumba class three nights a week, when a program involving strength training, cardio intervals, and corrective work would be “better.” You break everything down into manageable steps for the best overall success.
Yet there is a “go big or go home” school of thought with goal-setting, and it seems to be where the hatred of working out can creep in. If someone’s trying to alter multiple habits that tie together, some health professionals argue that it’s best to attack them all at once. The theory is that if you tend to drink excessively, smoke, and nosh on bar food all at once, it’ll be near impossible to break one habit without giving up the other two. Others say that if you set the goal high—exercising five days a week—you’ll achieve more than if you set a more modest goal, even if you don’t get as far as you’d hoped.
And thus, many, many people exercise because they “have” to rather than they “want” to—they set up their Mount Everest-size goal of “becoming healthy” by exercising in the best way possible. And, honestly, a significant portion of them do stick to their routines for years on end. Yet why does this mentality of “well, you just have to suck it up and do it” work for some people, but not for others? In one of her early advice columns, Hungry Girl Lisa Lillien, a blogger who’s made a niche out of developing low-cal recipes for junk food, told a reader, “I feel your pain. I, too, HATE to exercise. But while I hate to exercise, I force myself to do it. A lot. Because it’s the key to losing body fat or maintaining weight loss when you want to splurge and eat the foods you love. To get myself through tedious workouts, I try to make myself forget what I’m doing.”
Perhaps this mentality stems from the general work-a-holic tendency that drives America. Making sure to exercise to stay healthy isn’t that far from making sure you have a job, paying your rent on time, or doing anything else that’s generally expected of you. You may not like it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t do it, because you enjoy some of the consequences—having money to spend on collectible Lego people and groceries, having a place to store said collectible Lego people and groceries, or, with exercise, not getting sick all the time and having more energy and sporting killer guns.
But then we come back to those like my client, who know they should work out, but can’t stay motivated—because we have too many things we should be doing. Oftentimes, exercising falls low on the priority list, and changing priorities can be as difficult as changing religious beliefs.
Which is why we need to spend more time focusing on the message that it’s okay to choose exercise based on pleasure. If you enjoy it, then it is something you will turn to when you want to have fun. It will be something you make time for, like all those shows you have DVRed, to help you unwind after a stressful day at work. It becomes a habit in and of itself, not “successful” or “failed” based on a scale or tape measurer, and, thus, you get one step closer to being healthy.