Barriers to Exercise

Mental Health Awareness Week 2024 is focusing on the theme, “Movement: Moving more for our mental health”. We know movement is good for us, so what stops us exercising? In this blog, Sam explores common barriers…

When I speak to people about keeping physically healthy, I often hear people say, with a familiar guilty tone, “I know I should exercise more”.  It always makes me wonder where the guilt comes from and who it is they feel they are failing. My interest in this aspect of wellbeing has always been not in teaching people what they “should” do, but in understanding why, if we already know the importance of exercise (and yes, I’m including myself here!), we simply don’t do it. 

This blog is a combination of academic research and themes I’ve identified that have emerged from conversations in wellbeing sessions. Maybe you will recognise some of these issues in your own life, so I want to offer you some simple, real life, sustainable solutions to prioritise your physical health, ease the guilt, and get you moving.

I hate exercise!

If the thought of lycra-clad bodies, expensive sports equipment or a gym membership leaves you cold, it’s okay.  You don’t even have to call it exercise. You can read more about what counts as exercise here, but the World Health Organisation recommends adults do 150 minutes moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes vigorous-intensity exercise per week. That breaks down to 22 minutes a day of raising your heart rate and getting a little out of breath, or 11 minutes of really going for it. You’re probably already doing countable activity without realising it.  And remember you don’t have to do 22 consecutive minutes a day, a few minutes here and there also works.

I don’t have time

Again, if we’re thinking about going to the gym, going to an exercise class or playing a team sport, these can seem challenging to fit into a busy daily routine (although if you really loved the buzz of the endorphins or meeting up with your mates, it would probably be easier!). So reframing exercise into something that happens while you’re living your life, as opposed to an addition to your life, may be the answer for you.

I don’t have the energy

A full-time job, parenting responsibilities or simply getting older can certainly drain our resources, leaving us desperate at the end of a long day to curl up on the sofa with a box set and a packet of pringles. But the irony is that a moderate amount of exercise will actually increase our energy levels and give us more stamina and strength to get through the day, and also improve sleep at night so we are well rested the following day.

I don’t have the willpower

Some of us respond better to a “carrot”, and others to a “stick”. But a combination of both is probably the key to finding the willpower to move our bodies more. If we don’t enjoy doing something and there are no immediate consequences to us not doing it, it’s hardly a surprise we find something else to do with our time. Most of us find brushing our teeth pretty boring, but the consequences are fairly obvious when our friends tell us our breath stinks, or our teeth look stained when we smile, and painful and expensive dental work can develop quickly.  The consequences of lack of exercise may take longer to manifest – heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and falls can seem far enough in the future and potentially unrelated to justify to ourselves why we took the car rather than walked to the shop today.  But the consequences will be poor health sooner or later, and it might be too late to reverse the damage.  So we need to create our own consequences or “sticks” today, and throw in a few “carrots” too.  Here are some suggestions that have been shown to work.

Get moving tips

Do it with a friend or join a groupMost of us don’t have the dedication and internal motivation of an Olympic athlete to go out and train early in the morning come rain or shine, all alone.  But we’re quite good at finding time to meet our mates and have a laugh.  Exercising with others is not only more fun, they can also encourage us and add some healthy competition in to the equation.
Find something you enjoyDon’t let memories of miserable school PE lessons put you off.  Maybe you are more inspired by Strictly and imagine yourself doing Salsa or an Argentine tango? And if food is your thing, get an allotment and grow your own veg, there’s plenty of good quality exercise to be gained in the process. Or fancy learning a martial art so you can feel proper badass? And maybe it isn’t too late to take up skateboarding… The important thing is you don’t find it boring or you’re unlikely to stick at it.
Make it a habitIt helps if you fit activity into your everyday life and make it a part of your routine like brushing your teeth. Doing 10 minutes of yoga EVERY morning as soon as you get out of bed or walking to work instead of getting the bus may quickly translate into a non-negotiable habit.  Park Run every Saturday morning has worked for many people for this reason as well as the sociability aspect.
Make it an identityFor some people it becomes easier to go for a run when they become “a runner” or to go for a bike ride when they see themselves as “a cyclist”.  This might involve getting “the gear” and/or joining a club, but the identity impels them to do the activity and feel pride in their achievements. This isn’t for everyone, but does really work for some.
Create accountabilityOne of the reasons that personal trainers work is that there is someone watching you and holding you to account. If you aren’t in a position to pay someone to make you exercise, you could take the principle and tell someone or post on social media of your plans to do “Yoga with Adriene’s” January challenge, or whatever your commitment is.  Try having someone check in regularly to see if you’re flaking out.  Shame can be very motivating!
Track your achievementUtilising the reward stimulus of technology by gamifying activity is obviously going to be a winner. Most smart phones have step counters or apps that can be used to track activity in a basic way and set targets. If you want to take this a step further, smart watches or activity trackers will record your activity and produce progress reports.  These work really well in helping us compete either with ourselves, or with someone else.  The benefit of something worn on the wrist is that they count every time our heart rate goes into an exercise ‘zone’ and every step we take (as long as you don’t take it off!) so we can see how much we’re already achieving.

Motivation can be a personal thing; what works for one person may not work for everyone, but if you are honest with yourself, you should be able to find something that works for you. Remember that exercise is available to us all in some form or other and being “sporty” is optional!

What next?

Listen to this podcast about Leeds Dock Running Club, sharing the value of exercise and the benefits of doing it with other people!

Visit our Events page for details of upcoming Sketch Walks – exercise in the city, while learning and sketching in a really relaxed environment

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