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Conquering Your Fitness Fears

fitness fears

Story at-a-glance -

  • Focusing on the immediate benefits of exercise, such as increased mood, is more effective than focusing on the long-term benefits
  • While many people started an exercise program to lose weight and improve their appearance, they continued to exercise because of the benefits to their well-being
  • Determining a trigger cue for exercise, such as your morning alarm clock, can help turn exercise into an automatic habit

By Dr. Mercola

Engaging in exercise regularly is one of the best choices you can make for your health. Like healthy eating, it’s one of the few “magic bullets” you can use to slash your risk of multiple chronic diseases in one fell swoop.

Cancer, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, depression, obesity, high blood pressure… and I could go on… all of these risks are lowered by getting moving. If exercise were a pill, it would surely have reached blockbuster status eons ago.

But exercise, despite its undeniable benefits, is not embraced by many. Perhaps that’s because it works differently than a pill. It requires you to set aside time (although not as much as you might think) and have a plan of attack. You can’t just wish for exercise… you’ve got to commit to it and make it happen.

This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Quite the contrary, the “work” that is exercise can be the most rewarding part of your day and, indeed, many busy adults count exercise as their “me” time – it feels that good.

If you’re not yet in the place where exercise is something you look forward to and, yes, crave, don’t despair. It’s possible for virtually anyone to become an exercise aficionado, but getting there requires you to first conquer your fitness fears.

What’s Holding You Back from Exercise?

Exercise can’t help you lose weight, boost your mood, and make you healthier if you don’t do it. Unfortunately, many are not. In one study, men and women of normal weight were found to engage in fat-burning activities for a meager two minutes per day.1

Obese women were found to manage just one hour of vigorous exercise per year, which breaks down to about 11 seconds per day.2 The number one reason people fail in their exercise goals is lack of a payoff.

In other words, while exercise might help you to lose weight in a few weeks or prevent a heart attack a few years down the road, there is no immediate and noticeable reward to keep you motivated.

Or is there? Research shows that while many people started an exercise program to lose weight and improve their appearance, they continued to exercise because of the benefits to their well-being.3

Once people recognized this connection to their emotional health, they continued to work out because it made them feel good mentally, and this is a benefit that occurs immediately after exercise (as well as, for some, during). Dr. Segar stated:4

"It [Exercise] has to be portrayed as a compelling behavior that can benefit us today... People who say they exercise for its benefits to quality of life exercise more over the course of a year than those who say they value exercise for its health benefits.

… Immediate rewards are more motivating than distant ones... Feeling happy and less stressed is more motivating than not getting heart disease or cancer, maybe, someday in the future.

… Physical activity is an elixir of life, but we're not teaching people that. We're telling them it's a pill to take or a punishment for bad numbers on the scale. Sustaining physical activity is a motivational and emotional issue, not a medical one."

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Achieving Your Fitness Goals Makes You Feel Like You Can Conquer the World

The mental benefits of exercise are quite profound. CNN recently selected six viewers to be part of their 2015 Fit Nation triathlon team, and each shared their stories while they trained. Julia Smookler is among them, and she overcame both doubt and fear to complete her first competitive run in July. She told CNN:5

I had long thought of this annual run as something larger than life, and maybe it was just too much for me to do for my first competitive running experience.

These days, as cheesy as it may sound, no matter how fearful I am or how little confidence I have, I want to challenge myself. I was excited to be a part of this Atlanta tradition that our community cherishes and values.

On race day it was pouring rain. I woke up at 5 a.m. to make sure to eat properly and get to MARTA, Atlanta's public transit system, on time. I looked outside as the rain continued and had serious second thoughts.

I thought, ‘Why in the world, on my day of rest, especially on a holiday, am I going to struggle to get all the way to Buckhead and run in the pouring rain?’ And I'm not even that good a runner, at that.

Then, it hit me like a ton of bricks and I thought, ‘That's the old Julia! I'm am doing this if it kills me.’ Clearly that wasn't going to happen, but that's how empowered I felt at that moment.”

I’m not saying everyone needs to go out and run a marathon or 5K (in fact, long-distance running is likely not the best form of exercise). However, the exhilaration Julia experienced both before the race and at the finish line is something you, too, can feel, even with your everyday workouts.

It’s a personal battle, first and foremost, and you must reach the mindset that you can do it. Take it one day and, literally, one step at a time. Julia, who has expanded her workouts to include yoga, strength training, cycling, and spin class, continued:

To anybody who thinks they can't get healthy or conquer their challenges and fears and enjoy doing it, I am living proof. Every day is not easy. There are days that I feel like I just don't want to work out or I want that really big three-scoop sundae.

But I am reminded by my goal and how hard I have worked to get to where I am. I remind myself that this is my lifestyle, not a diet or short-term goal, and this is a goal to keep me and my family healthy and fit.”

A Quick Workout Has Near-Immediate Benefits

As mentioned, focusing on what exercise can do for you right now might help you to get started. You don’t have to sweat it out for months before you’ll see the results. If you start now, you can feel benefits in just a few minutes…

For starters, exercise boosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress. Many avid exercisers also feel a sense of euphoria after a workout, sometimes known as the "runner's high."

It can be quite addictive, in a good way, once you experience just how good it feels to get your heart rate up and your body moving. So if you're having trouble motivating yourself to exercise, there are immediate benefits to help get you over the hump. Aside from the emotional "high," other immediate or near-immediate benefits include:

  • Better sleep
  • Boost your immune system
  • Improve blood flow to your brain
  • Enhance learning
  • Build self-esteem and body image

Once you experience these personally, you'll likely have a high level of self-determination or autonomy when it comes to deciding to exercise. Rather than viewing it as a chore you have to do, you'll view it as a choice that you value spending your time doing – and probably also start to think of it as essential to keeping your emotional sanity.

How to Make Exercise a Habit That Sticks

Once you’ve moved past your fears, it also helps to make exercise into a habit. The video above shows ways you can actually “trick” yourself into exercising, although research suggests consistent exercisers have made exercise a habit triggered by a cue, such as hearing the morning alarm and heading for the gym first thing in the morning without even thinking about it.6

This kind of habit is referred to as “an instigation habit,” and it was found to provide people with the most consistent results. In fact, the strength of a person’s instigation habit was the only factor able to predict a person’s ability to maintain an exercise regimen over the long-term.

So for a simple tip to help make exercise a life-long habit, decide what your trigger cue will be. It could be your morning alarm clock, your lunch break, or even feeling stressed – and then just follow through by going to the gym (or wherever you do your exercise) when the cue is triggered.

The idea is to hinge the habit around a recurring cue, so that you get started on your workout without actually having to consciously decide to do so each time (which then gives you opportunity to talk yourself out of it).

5 More Tips to Make Exercise a Lifelong Habit

Dr. Michelle Segar has written a book called No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. In it, she reveals science-backed strategies for making exercise a lifelong habit. Here are five of her common-sense tips:7

  • Count all forms of physical activity: According to Dr. Segar, realizing that everything counts, including taking the stairs instead of the elevator, a 10-minute lunch walk, and half an hours’ worth of gardening — can be very transformative, as it removes feelings of failure. “It makes them feel successful every time they move, which leads to higher energy levels all day long,” she says.
  • Focus on the Now: Asking yourself “what can I do right now?” is another way to liberate yourself from time and scheduling limitations. You may not have time to squeeze in 30 minutes of tennis, but perhaps you have time for a brisk walk during lunch, or a few squats, or burpees right next to your desk.
  • Do what you enjoy: Not surprisingly, research has shown that enjoyment is one of the strongest predictors of long-term exercise maintenance.8 According to Dr. Segar:
  • “Our brains are hardwired to respond to immediate gratification, and to do what makes us feel good. This is one of the reasons we tend to give up on chore-like workouts.”

  • Take ownership of your health and fitness: The idea that you “should” exercise isn’t compelling enough for most people. More often than not, such guilt trips will backfire, even when they’re self-imposed. Instead, identify what it is you seek to gain from exercise. As noted earlier, honing in on the more immediate rewards, such as feeling refreshed and able to think more clearly right there and then, are more potent motivators than “avoiding future heart disease” or “losing 10 pounds.”
  • Make one change at a time: Trying to change several facets of your lifestyle all at once is usually a recipe for failure. For most people, changing your diet, starting an exercise regimen, and learning to meditate all at once is just too much. So incorporate new habits one at a time. You may even need to break some habits into smaller, more manageable chunks.
  • “[A]bove all else, remember to keep it fun, because that is the true secret to lasting motivation,” Dr. Segar says. “Do the physical movement you want to do, when you want to do it, for the amount of time your life allows. That’s the best way to keep from lapsing altogether.”

Taking Care of Yourself Helps You Take Care of Others

I also want to point out that taking time for exercise should not be viewed as self-indulgent. On the contrary, when you put in the time to take care of yourself, it recharges you so that you’re able to take care of others and function to the best of your ability daily. So if you’re feeling like you don’t have time to exercise because you need to be devoting that time to other people, such as caring for your children or elderly parents, or devoting time to work or other family obligations, the opposite is actually true. The New York Times quoted Dr. Segar:9

“‘When we do not prioritize our own self-care because we are busy serving others, our energy is not replenished. Instead, we are exhausted, and our ability to be there for anyone or anything else is compromised.’ People who make physical activity a priority don’t necessarily have more time than others. Rather, they make sure to schedule time for it because they know it enhances their performance and the quality of their daily lives ...

Citing a ‘paradox of self-care,’ Dr. Segar wrote, ‘The more energy you give to caring for yourself, the more energy you have for everything else.’ 
She suggests viewing physical activity as a power source for everything else you want to accomplish. ‘What sustains us, we sustain...’”

Do You Need Some Help Loving Your Body?

One final hurdle you may need to overcome before exercise becomes part of your life is the way you feel about your body. Many people will avoid going to the gym because they feel their body will be unfairly judged. You may also feel that your fitness goals are just too out of reach, and your body won’t be able to physically handle the exercise you mentally desire. The video above, with Julie Schiffman, shows you how to use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to learn to love your body and stop negative self-talk that may be sabotaging your fitness goals. Just the way you phrase your fitness goals can also make a major difference in your ability to achieve them.

Goals surrounded by negativity such as "getting rid of my flabby abs" or "carving off my muffin top" will likely backfire, as research suggests being overly focused on your appearance weakens exercise motivation.10 Instead, your focus should be on other aspects of body image, such as "body appreciation" and "functional body satisfaction" (what your body can do) – or on the emotional benefits to your well-being that exercise can quickly bring you.

Finally, if you’re still looking for more ways to conquer your fitness fears, try music. Research has shown music can significantly boost your exertion level during a workout. While your body may be simply responding to the beat on a more or less subconscious level, the type and tempo of the music you choose may also influence your conscious motivation. Together, the synchronization of moving to the beat along with being motivated by the music itself allows it to do its magic and can help you get over a fear of fitness.