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Why do we KNOW we should exercise but don’t? And what can we do about it?

Why do we KNOW we should exercise but don’t? And what can we do about it?

Exercise: we all know we should do it, and I could list all of the great benefits of exercise, but I have a feeling most of you already know those things. Yes, regular exercise will help prevent premature death and can help prevent chronic western lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease [1]. Yet we as a nation collectively aren’t doing nearly enough of it… So the biggest question is why?

Knowing that exercise may help you live longer and prevent chronic disease is an example of an extrinsic motivator. Yet what may be more helpful in terms of getting you exercising regularly is uncovering your own unique intrinsic motivator. If you can identify this you stand a much better chance of being able to follow through on your exercise goals.

Uncovering your intrinsic motivation may help you succeed with your exercise goals where in the past you have failed. Everyone’s “why” is going to be slightly different so it is important to ask yourself why is it important for you to exercise? Because your personal trainer or health practitioner told you it is good for you is not a good enough “why”. Perhaps you want to lose weight (and if this is the case then it is often a good idea to question yourself around your motivation to lose weight as well) or feel stronger, improve your mood or reduce your stress levels. Uncovering your own unique why is an important first step to getting you moving more. Also ask yourself what it will feel like if you can incorporate exercise into your daily life. How will you feel if you can start regularly exercising? How will you feel in six months or one years’ time if you can incorporate exercise into your daily life? Will you feel more relaxed? Healthier? Weigh less? Be less stressed? Be able to do activities with your children that you can’t at the present?

Now think about what is stopping you from achieving your goals. What are your road blocks or the excuses that you commonly use? Some common ones are lack of time and finding exercise boring or tedious. Or you may have other negative associations around exercising. It is important to work to uncover and analyse these, as these reasons are what are likely to sabotage your efforts.

Once you have identified your road blocks it can be helpful to problem solve around these. For example if one of your excuses is that you are too busy you may want to get a weekly calendar and input all your tasks in there - work, time taking the kids to activities/events, social events, shopping, etc. Then look for the gaps where you could fit exercise in. Do you watch an hour of tv in the evening? Could 20 minutes of that time be used to go for an evening walk? If you invite your partner/children/friend to exercise with you and make it social then are you more likely to do it? Is there one morning or afternoon per week where you can spare a half hour or hour? Could you use that time to go to the gym, do a yoga class or go for a swim/walk/run?

If you are having trouble identifying your own intrinsic motivation and how to get around your ‘road blocks’ then this is where a skilled practitioner can help. Making change is difficult and it is often harder at the beginning. The good news is that it does get easier - you may find that as you exercise more regularly you start to have more energy, an improved mood and weight loss - this can then help increase your motivation to keep going.

[1] Warburton D, Nicol CW, Bredin S. Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ 2006;174:6801-809

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