How to get fit (when you hate exercise)

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It sometimes feels like either you were blessed with the interests and talents to enjoy working out in the gym or you weren’t. It seems like everyone who’s fit loves to be active, so there’s no possible way for me to ever get fit because I don’t. Or maybe you do like playing sports but you simply don’t have time to play every day. What’s a person to do?

Today I’d like to go through a couple of reason why people aren’t active and a few things that you could try for each of those. Mostly though, I’d like to give you a few things to think about. Maybe we can find a different way to think about exercise. Feel free to skip down to the sections that apply to you. If one section doesn’t resonate with you, then I hope there’s something here that does.

First off, what does it mean to be fit?

For some people, the phrase “get fit” means something specific. Maybe it’s a look you’re going for, a distance that you run or swim, or a certain amount of weight that you lift. For many people, though, being fit means that they can be active and not be tired out. They can walk up a steep hill and not be breathing hard. They can run around after kids and keep up. They can lift and move big heavy objects in their house without difficulty. And then they can meet up with some friends and play soccer or something like that.

Try this. Grab a piece of paper and write out what it means to be fit. What would it mean for your life if you were more “fit”?

what does it mean to be fit? what would your life look like if you were more fit?

But I hate to exercise

Try this. Grab some paper and write or draw a mind map to answer the question, “What is exercise”? Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I did this exercise (pun intended) myself. Here’s what I came up with.


The mind map I made to see what I think of when I hear the word “exercise”.

Not a fun picture is it? No wonder you hate to exercise if your notes or mind map looks anything like mine. So what are we supposed to do with this? We either need to change how we think about exercise. Or we need to stop trying to exercise – and instead work to be active, or move in ways that feel good. That’s why I used the word “move” when I talk about the Foundations. It’s not about needing to be on the treadmill or lift weights. It is about moving our bodies in ways that make us feel good.

Try this. Think about ways that you’ve enjoyed moving your body. Anything that you’ve done, at any point in your life, where you enjoyed moving. Or even times when you enjoyed what you were doing, and you happened to be moving. If you’re having difficulty thinking of anything, search for active games for kids and see what comes up in the google results. See if anything there triggers happy memories for you. As you’re thinking about this or making your list, don’t censor yourself. Just because you think hopscotch is a game for kids, doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t still be fun for you as an adult!

But I hate the way my body looks.

This is a doozy. It is such a common feeling. And it can be such a complex issue to work through. It is worth it though.

There are so many reasons why you might feel this way. Both boys and girls are taught that they should look a certain way. Sometimes it’s direct – from teasing or bullying to even well-intentioned family members. Sometimes it’s indirect. They see certain looks in the media, and they see that people who look different are sometimes treated differently. It’s not right, but so many of us go through this gauntlet. Is it surprising, then, that it changes the way we think?

I could (and will) do a whole post on how to learn to feel good in your skin again, and what we can do to help the kids in our lives. Today, though, let’s think about the Foundations and the good life. Specifically, curiosity, compassion, and the idea of self-care.

First, a huge caveat. If you’ve experienced, or are currently experiencing, trauma of any kind, there are people who want to help you. Therapist, counsellors, or mental health workers are trained to help you. If you’ve been to one in the past that wasn’t helpful, try another. All the mental health professionals I’ve ever met are great people, but you do need to find the right person to help you. Sometimes it takes finding that right person to really make a difference. Reach out. 1

If you’re ready and able to work on these issues on your own, here are a few questions for you to ponder or things you can try.

  • Why do you feel this way? No, I don’t mean “I hate that my jeans don’t fit right”. I mean who told you that there was something wrong with your body? Why did they say that? Is it possible that they have issues with their own appearance? Did you “discover” that you were “wrong” somehow by absorbing the messages of our culture? Did your body change and you’re not used to it anymore? These questions can be very enlightening but it can also be especially challenging or triggering. Be safe my friends.


  • When do you feel like you hate your body? Is it in specific situations? Is it after seeing specific things online or on social media? Can you cut out the bad influences – unfollow people who trigger you, etc. (And no that doesn’t make you weak. It is a way of caring for yourself, to protect yourself while you feel vulnerable). Seek out influences that make you feel better.


  • What is good about your body? What does it allow you to do?


  • Find some body positivity quotes and consider what emotions it causes for you. Do they resonate? How can you incorporate them more? Here’s a few quotes to check out
    • Here’s one example (I wasn’t able to find a source – so I’m probably paraphrasing it. If you know where this came from let me know and I’ll update to include it!)

your body is the only one you've got, isn't it time you made it home?

  • Consider ways that you can move and that feel good: stretching, walking, yoga, etc. Feel your muscles move. Feel the stiffness leave your muscles as you move them first thing in the morning or after sitting at a desk for a while.


  • Meditate. Do breath or body scan meditations2. Feel what it feels like on the inside.


  • Consider the fact that you have a relationship with yourself. Between your mind and your body. Between your thoughts and “you”. Try writing a letter to yourself. Write what you feel and really think. If you notice yourself writing mean things, try writing a letter back. Think of that first letter as being written to you from a dear friend. What would you tell him or her? Let your compassion for that dear friend seep into your letter.[If this idea intregues you, check out the Greater Good in Action’s post on self-compassionate letters. [/note]


  • Finally, and especially if you are struggling at all, at any point of your journey, seek help. 3

I have no time for exercise

Did you do the try this above to write out what exercise means to you? If not, do it now, before we continue.

what do you think of when you hear the word exercise?

When you wrote it out, did you think of things like “no pain, no gain,” or “I have to do at least 30 minutes for it to count”? Let me challenge that a little.

It is widely accepted that doing even 5-10 minutes at a time makes a difference when it comes to health outcomes like blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart health. Even small amounts can and do make a difference in your health. To quote Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, “Some is good. More is better. Everything counts.

Try this. As you go through your day, make note of little pockets of time during which you could be active.

One major barrier people have to this idea is that they think they have to sweat for it to count. And then they’d have to shower or at least change. This adds 5-20 minutes to the exercise by itself.

Try this. Make a mental or physical list of all the things that you do, or could do, where you move your body but don’t make you sweat.

Another thing to consider is the idea of habits. Stephen Guise is a blogger and proponent of mini-habits. He credits a habit of doing one push up a day to eventually leading him to do up to 2 hours a few days a week. The idea is simple and ingenious. One push-up doesn’t take very much time. If you’re like me and can’t actually do a full pushup, you could start with a modified push-up (with your knees on the ground). If you’re brushing your teeth and suddenly realize you didn’t go to the gym, there’s not much that you can do. But if you’re brushing your teeth and realize that you haven’t done your push-up, you can do it right then and there.

But what’s one push-up going to do?

It’s going to get you into the habit of doing something physical every day. It is a placeholder habit. It says after I do this other thing, I move my body. If you break your wrist, switch it up and do crunches, or one warrior pose. The exact exercise doesn’t matter. The point is that it reduces your resistance to starting (because it takes no time to do). It makes you move. It builds your habit of moving.

Try this. Find a space to be active in the tiniest possible way you can think of.

But 5-10 minutes won’t add up to running a marathon / won’t add 20 pounds to my bench press

Basically, this objection is that you can’t reach certain goals in small pockets of time. And in some cases that’s true. To add 20 pounds to his bench press each year, my husband has to work out 6 hours every week, plus be consistent with his diet and sleep. It’s a commitment to reach certain goals. It’s similar no matter what goal you have for your fitness. At a certain level, you either need to put in the time, or you need to change your goal.

Do you really want to reach your goals? Or do you just want to be doing the other stuff that I talked about above when discussing what it means to be fit? Do you want to lift a certain amount of weight or run a certain distance? Or do you want to be able to keep up with your kids and do stuff around the house and go on adventures? These are two very different approaches to fitness.

One approach requires time, commitment and consistency. If you are trying to increase the amount of weight you can lift, you’ll lose those gains if you skip your workouts for 2 weeks. If you’re aiming more for an everyday kind of fitness, you can be more flexible.

Try this. Spend some time in quiet reflection – meditation, prayer, a quiet walk, journaling – and get clear on what you really and truly want. If you actually do want to reach those specific fitness goals, then you need to talk with the people in your life. You’ll need their support to reach your goals. Take your time on this one. Get to know what it would actually take to reach your fitness goals. Do you really want to put in the work even when you don’t feel like it?

do you want to be an athlete or do you want to have an active life?

If you don’t want to put in the work to reach those goals, how would it feel to “simply” feel better in your body and be active some way every day?

For some people, their weight lifting or running or swimming goals are actually important to them. They want to push their body and see what they are capable of. I see it in my husband. If he’s sick or injured, he’s still going to the gym, he might not be able to push as much or he may have to adapt a little to allow his injuries to heal. But he’s still going to the gym.

For some people, they want to feel good. They want to be able to go on adventures hiking or canoeing or exploring a new city. Or they want to be able to keep up with their kids. This is the camp I fall into. I have fun from time to time trying to deadlift or bench press, but mostly I walk and do yoga. These two things make me feel good and that’s what I care about at the end of the day. I used to beat myself up all the time for not being committed to working out. At the end of the day, it’s not that important to me.

I’m too tired.

Ah, the common complaint of our time. We’re all tired. We’re all busy. And it’s mostly true.

  1. We need sleep. 7 to 9 hours for most adults is what we need. I’ve written about sleep before, and December will be dedicated to sleep and rest. This article by James Clear coincidentally came to my inbox this week and is a spectacular exploration of this idea. (I’m kind of jealous of his style, by the way, so I gotta spread the love). If you aren’t getting enough sleep, try some of the tips in my article, James Clear’s article, and stay tuned for the articles coming in December (sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss it).
  2. Exercise reduces fatigue. It does this in a few ways.
    1. First, it improves sleep (see point #1).
    2. Second, it can causes your body to release neurotransmitters that boost mood4.
    3. Third, especially if you go outside, the fresh air can be invigorating (especially in the winter as it is here!). I’m sure we’ve all experienced that for ourselves.
    4. Fourth, when you change your environment, it gets your mind working in a different way and give you a “second wind”. Again, I’m sure you can think of a time when you experienced this yourself.
  3. If you don’t get a burst of energy following your exercise, see point 1. You need more sleep, even if you feel like you’re doing okay. When we are chronically sleep deprived, we don’t even notice how our day-to-day performance is hindered. Try all the things to get more sleep. And definitely speak to your doctor if it doesn’t work, or if you need something in the short term to get you back on track. There may be something going on, or you may need medication.

It might be true that you can’t get more sleep right now. For example, if you have a young or sick child in the house, keeping you up or waking you up throughout the night. Then that’s even more reason to focus on short bursts on exercise.

Breaking up your sitting time, and getting small bursts of exercise where you can, will add up to give you a good amount of the benefits of exercise. Also, see that discussion we had above under not having enough time and the mini habits. The point here is to keep you in the habit of finding some time (even if it’s 30 seconds) to be active. That way, once this season of life passes and you can get more sleep again, you’re in the habit of finding time to exercise.

It’s too hard.

Exercise, movement, physical activity, being active – whatever you call it, it might be outside of your comfort zone. Especially if your comfort zone is curled up under a blanket with a mug of tea watching Netflix. (Or is that just me?)

But, if it is too hard, you’ve skipped a step. By this I mean, you can’t expect yourself to go from zero to athlete overnight. You need to start where you are. If where you are is 1lb weights or walking for 2 minutes, then that is where you are.

You need to start where you are. And do your best to drop the judgment. You’ve always done the best you could with the knowledge and mindset that you had.

Now though, you want to get active. You don’t feel good. You are tired of “being lazy”. You want to “get fit”. That’s awesome. Let’s use that desire to make changes.

The common advice is to figure out where you want to go. People say that you should set a goal to run a marathon, or lift 100lbs, or bike across the country. That is not necessary. That has never gotten me to be active for more than a day or two.

But you do need to know where you are starting from. Pick a type of activity and figure out how much of it is easy. If none of it is easy, break it down. Let’s take the example of running.

A different way to start running.

You want to run, but even one step is too hard. What is the less intense version of running? Of course, it’s walking, you’ve no doubt heard this advice before. Start with walking. Start by figuring out how much is easy. Start walking and as soon as it starts to get a little more difficult, make a note of that. Is it 1 minute, 5, 10, 20? Where does it start getting a little harder?

Once you find that point, call it your challenge line. Congratulations, you completed your first day. Go home, get off the treadmill, and go do whatever you want to do. Give yourself a gold star on the calendar.

Tomorrow, walk out to your challenge line and go just a little further. One step more, 1 minute, 5 minutes. It depends on where you started from. Then go give yourself another gold star.

Your goal is to increase your challenge line in a way that is sustainable and allows you to be active every day. You might try to increase by 30 seconds or 1 minute every day or every week. 30 seconds may not feel like much to add, but by the end of the year, you’d be walking 25 minutes every day. Or if you increase by 1 minute every week that’s almost an hour. Only you know your challenge line. As you start doing more, you’ll be able to take bigger jumps or increase more often because, guess what, you’re becoming more fit.

To transition from walking to running, you’d start out by walking, then jog in the middle of your walk. That way you have a warm-up period of walking to start getting the blood flowing, and you have a cool down period after.

Or use your comfort zone to your advantage.

Another way to think about it, rather than considering the time or distance would be to make a note of how it feels to go just outside of your comfort zone. Aim to get outside of your comfort zone and notice that over the weeks and months it takes longer or you have to up the intensity to reach that point. On this rating of perceived exertion on the Harvard School of Public Health website, you’d be aiming for “somewhat hard.” They define this level as, “Brisk walking or other activities that require moderate effort and speed your heart rate and breathing but don’t make you out of breath.”

Remember, if you’re starting from zero, you won’t be able to do as much as someone who has been running/lifting weights/swimming/doing yoga/whatever for a year or 5 years or 20 years. You are on your own journey. So many of us get stuck in a comparison trap and lose a sense of compassion for ourselves.

But I have a lot of pain.

This is a challenging situation. I’m thinking especially about people who have chronic pain because of arthritis, fibromyalgia, past injuries, or any other reason. Being active generally reduces pain, but you’ve got to really get to know your own body.

There is a kind of pain that is trying to tell you to move, use your muscles and get the blood flowing. Then there is a kind of pain that is trying to tell you to stop and rest. When you have chronic pain, or you are disconnected from your body signals, it can be very difficult to know what kind of pain you’re experiencing.

Working with a physiotherapist, kinesiologist, or occupational therapist who specializes in chronic pain can be helpful. And they will be able to give you specific recommendations for your specific situation. There are some common practices that help.

Try this. Meditation, breathing exercises, and body scans are great ways to reconnect with your body signals. Also, learning and listening to your other body signals, like hunger and thirst, can cross over to helping you learn your pain better. By learning to pay attention to one signal from your body, you’re learning to listen to and trust your body in general.

A lot of times, it comes down to experimenting. Be super mindful of how your body feels while you move. Notice how the pain, tension, or stiffness changes as you move. Is the intensity changing, the location, the quality? Yoga or tai chi can be particularly helpful because they focus on the mind-body connection.

Try this. Try different kinds of movement and see what seems to help (or at least doesn’t make things worse). Do more of those things.

As you do more activity or your condition changes, periodically go back to things you’ve tried in the past to see if they feel any different now. You’ll get stronger, and you’ll know yourself better. So your experience with different types of activity may change.


For those of us who want to be more active, get fit, or do more exercise, there are things that hold us back. Sometimes they are significant barriers, sometimes it simply requires a shift in perspective (simple but not easy). We have lofty ideas of what it means to be fit, to exercise, or to be active. But the fact is that it doesn’t need to be super intense, not if you “just” want to be active and feel good.

Whew. This article ended up at about 4000 words, and I know there is still more to explore. I hope I’ve given you a few things to think about under each of these different challenges.

Let me know, is there anything I missed? Do you have a challenge that I didn’t address? Or have you tried something that got you more active that I haven’t included as a “try this”?

Comment down below or find me on Facebook or Twitter and leave a response there.

  1. CBC lists several mental health resources. The Big White Wall is a new service for Canadians. The Canadian Mental Health Association has offices across the country. There are crisis lines you can call if you need help now.
  2. Here are some instructions for how to do this from the Greater Good in Action. Breath meditation. Body Scan Meditation
  3. CBC lists several mental health resources. The Big White Wall is a new service for Canadians. The Canadian Mental Health Association has offices across the country. There are crisis lines you can call if you need help now.
  4. This is true for most people. It is possible to overdo it, but most of us could benefit from a little more. This research review covers both sides of exercise.

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