We all know that regular physical activity is crucial for good health—it reduces our risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancer, mental disorders, including depression and anxiety, and even premature death.
Problem: Nearly nine out of every 10 people who start an exercise program drop out within six weeks, typically due to injuries and/or lack of social reinforcement. But these aren't the only reasons that people give for skipping workouts.
In my 46 years as a practicing sports medicine physician, I've heard all kinds of excuses for not exercising. Here are the most common excuses and the rebuttals I give my patients to get them back on track…
Excuse: I'm so out of shape that I wouldn't know where to begin.
My rebuttal: No matter how out of shape you might be, you'll immediately begin getting fitter once you engage in any regular physical activity. If you haven't exercised in a long time, start by simply getting a bit more physical activity each day and gradually increasing it.
The most popular recommendations are to park a block from where you're heading and walk the rest of the way and/or to take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Other possibilities: Do gardening or yard work...vacuum and wash your car...walk around the inside and/or outside of your house...tackle a cleaning project you've been putting off...ride a bike to nearby destinations instead of driving ...and/or stroll around a park or mall.
When you're ready to start a more formal exercise program, don't choose an activity that requires a great deal of skill or strength you don't yet have, such as in-line skating, jumping rope or rock climbing. Instead, try a low-risk activity that you already know how to do. Walking is great for most people.
Other good choices: Swimming, cycling, jogging and/or dancing (aerobic or ballroom).
Start with just a few minutes a day. Begin very slowly and continue until your muscles start to hurt or you feel uncomfortable, then quit for the day. Do this every day until you can exercise continuously for 30 minutes daily without feeling sore. You can always add more challenging activities to your program later.
Excuse: I'm afraid that I'll strain my heart.
My rebuttal: It's true that heart rate and blood pressure rise during exercise, but this doesn't pose a danger for most people. A recently published Johns Hopkins study of healthy older people with mild hypertension (130-159 mmHg/85-99 mmHg) found that the short-term spike in blood pressure they experienced during moderate exercise (the equivalent of brisk walking plus weight training) didn't harm their hearts in any way. Since regular physical activity helps lower your heart rate and blood pressure when you're not exercising, being physically fit actually results in less overall strain on your heart.
Important: Always check with your doctor before starting any exercise program. If you ever develop chest pain, shortness of breath or dizziness during exercise, stop at once. If your symptoms go away as soon as you stop, check with your doctor as soon as possible. If symptoms continue, consult a doctor immediately.
Excuse: I can't find time in my schedule to exercise.
My rebuttal: There's no "best" time to exercise. The ideal time is any time that you will do it. It really doesn't matter whether you exercise first thing in the morning, during your lunch break or sometime in the early evening. And you don't have to exercise for long stretches at a time to get tremendous benefits. Multiple short bouts of exercise can be as effective as long sessions in strengthening your heart. Perform longer workouts one hour or more) on the weekends, when you are more likely to have the time.
For some people, keeping an exercise diary is helpful. Use a calendar to schedule your workouts. After every workout, jot down what you did, how long you did it and how much distance you covered, if applicable. Tracking your progress will give you a sense of accomplishment and keeps you focused on your goals.
Excuse: I started to exercise once but got injured.
My rebuttal: It's true that almost two-thirds of people who start an exercise program end up dropping out because of an injury. Jogging is especially hard on your knees, hips and other joints because your feet hit the ground with a force greater than twice your body weight. However, the more slowly you run, the lower the shock. If you approach your exercise prudently, you probably won't get injured.
Here are some examples of exercises that are not likely to injure you—and that you may enjoy...
- Take up swimming or tai chi. These activities put little or no stress on your joints while delivering significant fitness benefits. Swimming improves cardiovascular health, while tai chi strengthens muscles.
- If you enjoy cycling, consider buying—or getting your gym to buy—a recumbent stationary bike, which provides back support while you pedal
Typical cost: $500. You can use it year-round indoors, and it's considered one of the safest types of exercise equipment available. This type of exercise is ideal for most people with back problems.
Excuse: I get bored.
My rebuttal: Exercise can be a great social activity itself--and can lead to a more interesting social life in general. Studies have shown that the people who stick to their exercise programs are more likely to meet regularly with other exercisers in some formalized way.
You don't have to exercise with others every day--but try to meet one or more people at least once a week. Join a walking, running or cycling club that has regular weekend events...agree to meet with one or more friends at a regular time each week for a group walk, swim, bike ride or gym workout...or set up a weekly session with a personal trainer. You won't be bored.
Ballroom dancing and cycling are both great activities for couples. My wife and I like to ride bikes together, but we cycle at different speeds. So we bought a tandem bike that lets us ride together—each of us pedaling at our own level of effort—and joined a club that holds group tandem rides on the weekend.