Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
28 May

Dear Mark: I Hate to Exercise

Many of us enjoy exercise, probably more just tolerate it, but have you ever known someone to detest it with every fiber of their being? Today, we have a question from a reader with precisely that issue. She hates exercise, and even feels near to tears when she has to do it. Moreover, she doesn’t get the “high” that many of us – even the ones who would rather be doing something else – enjoy after a workout. Well, she’s not alone. Regular exercise is a major stumbling block for many of us, so let’s take a look at some general strategies those that hate exercise can employ, as well as new ways to think about and approach exercise. I don’t have any end all, be all answers, but I do have some good ideas. First, the question:

I think I saw this concern addressed on your blog, but I am not sure. I hate to exercise. There is something in me that just makes me want to cry when I have to do it. I never feel good after I do it. What is the answer? Desperately wanting to exercise, but just can’t.



Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. There is no one supplement to take. There’s no one exercise that works for everyone, everywhere, under any circumstance. That you’re “desperately wanting to exercise,” however, is a good start. Here are my suggestions for getting started and making it stick. Oh, and – most importantly – enjoying it!

Get a Workout Partner

More importantly than just finding someone who will workout with you, make a series of pacts with your buddy. First, if one person doesn’t show or backs out, the other person must also back out. Second, pledge to keep training until the other person stops. Research suggests that if someone else’s workout depends on yours, you will be more likely to exercise, so as not to disappoint or let down the other person. Drill sergeants have been doing essentially this for millennia – making the group suffer for the mistake of one in order to compel the one to shape up.

Tinker with Your Neural Reward System

Normally, the release of dopamine makes us feel good about completing a goal. That goal could be finishing a tough work assignment, winning a game of chess, or completing a hard workout. And the dopamine release, if it happens reliably enough, also helps us form (good and bad) habits. Is there something you love and enjoy every time you experience or obtain it? Maybe it’s an episode of your favorite TV show. Maybe it’s a long hot bath. Whatever it is, indulge yourself with a healthy reward every single time you work out. If you’ve ever trained a dog to do anything, this will be familiar. You might even feel a little silly, but don’t. We’re all animals, and we all respond to reward in similar ways. It’s just that some of us have already learned to associate exercise with neural reward. You probably haven’t, so you need to do a bit of formal entrainment. Eventually, you won’t need the reward anymore. Like a good dog no longer needs a treat in order to sit, stay, or come, you’ll come to associate exercise with its own inherent reward – especially after seeing the results.

Make Your Short Workouts Shorter and More Intense

I say this a lot, and for good reason: acute bouts of ultra-intense training is more effective and, unsurprisingly, more neurally rewarding. What does this mean, in real world terms? Increase the intensity and reduce the volume. Lift more weight, not more reps. Run (or bike, or crawl, or swim) as fast as you can for a short period of time, not pretty fast for a long period of time.

Just Move and Play

You say you hate “exercise.” That’s fine; lots of people hate it. But what about movement in general? Is there any physical activity you can bear? Walking? Gardening? Hiking? Rock climbing? Playing catch? Frisbee? I refuse to believe that any and all types of physical undertaking make you miserable. If you can find the will to get up out of bed and walk to the kitchen for breakfast in the morning without crying, you can walk a little farther – say, around the block several times – as well. Don’t worry about calories or reps or weight or the next guy. Just move and play.

Relearn the Meaning of Exercise

While I’ve always been active, there was a time when I hated – truly hated – what I considered to be the optimal form of exercise. Back when I was an endurance athlete, running marathons and then competing in triathlons, I began to hate my training. I was fit and active and thought I was doing the best thing I could for my body, but I really dreaded working out. Eventually, I realized that not only was my training unpleasant and miserable, it was also extremely unhealthy. That revelation forced me to relearn the meaning of exercise. I had to move, I had to train somehow, but I couldn’t continue on my current trajectory. I had to start all over and accept that maybe, just maybe it would be okay to take it easy and lift some weights, move really fast for short periods of time, and take actual rest days. Once I accepted that exercise didn’t have to miserable to be effective, everything fell into place.

Examine Your Past

Your disdain for exercise may be long-held and deep-seated. Perhaps your gym classes as a kid were particularly brutal and unforgiving, and you just learned to associate exercise with misery. I felt that way, early on in my school career. But amidst all the wedgies and purple nurples and teasing, I learned to love exercise by finding something I loved to do (and something I was already doing on my own as a kid): running. Ironically, I hate running distance nowadays, but my love for movement in general has never waned. Look back to and face down a precipitating event – if one indeed exists. Identifying it may be enough to start the road to recovery.

Try Different Modalities

Some need more regimentation, direction, and structure to their exercise. Some need more freedom, randomization, and boundlessness. Many people do better at the gym and laze around at home; others never quite get over their self-consciousness and instead prefer working out solitarily, whether that’s in the garage or at a secluded spot in the park. I’m a big fan of both slow-moving high intensity training, a la Body By Science, as well as something as seemingly intuitive but sneakily periodized and systematic as MovNat. If you dislike training and want it to be over with as quickly as possible while remaining effective, try Body by Science, explained here in a guest post by Dr. Doug McGuff (its creator). If you hate training but want to love it, try a MovNat 1-day class (described here by a Worker Bee who attended one). I challenge you to try MovNat and not want to move often and move well.

This will sound cliche, but you need to broaden your horizons. You may end up hating each and every one of the workout modalities you try, but you cannot know that until you actually try one. Good luck! And remember, you just have to move!

Feel free, folks, to chime in with whatever worked for you. Specific movements, training regimens, strategies, different ways to think about exercise, that sort of thing. Oftentimes the best stuff comes up in the comment section, and I hope this time is no different!

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. I hate to exercise too and for most of my adulthood, just did it sporadically. What I did was join a small ladies gym that has a weight machine circuit that takes me about 15 minutes to do one right after the other. I go at a time when it’s pretty empty (right after lunchtime) and just do it quickly and leave. I go three times a week. I also run on a treadmill for about 30 minutes twice a week. I’m 50. If I don’t go the guilt is worse than working out is.

    kay wrote on March 4th, 2013
  2. I understand you perfectly. I detest exercise with a passion. I have only once in my life (that I can recall) experienced an adrenaline high and hated the feeling to point of actively panicking enough to vomit. I have never managed a dopamine high from anything and the sensation of sweat on my skin is enough to want to live in a freezer – it may be the single grossest sensation possible; a hot summer day can made me retch in disgust.
    Heaven knows I’ve tried the gym and that was a waste of everybody’s time and money, walking is dull beyond words, swimming is expensive and awkward to the point of defeating any motivation I manage to raise. A personal trainer was a disaster; I’m a cynic by nature (hello England) and cheerful encouragement is enough to stop me doing something just to make them go and encourage somewhere out of earshot. My knees are shot due to a school related accident and I loath team sports from the same period.
    What works for me is filmmaking, oddly enough. Working with a few friends means being on my feet for extended periods, carrying awkward kit to sometimes ridiculous locations, chasing actors with the camera (or avoiding falling over tree roots out in the wilds on location). The hardest physical part is walking the cast through the scene – often that actually means running. I always wear one layer less than the weather would suggest so that I don’t heat up and thus avoid the sweat issue. Plus, when I’m frayed out at the end of the shoot I know there’s a nice comfortable editing studio waiting. And of course, there’s the fun of showing the film!

    Martin Winters wrote on October 6th, 2013
  3. I’m back a year later, still hate exercise, but I have an interesting story to tell you guys about how I know exercise is nonsense. Seriously and literally nonsense.

    I was a postal worker for 15 years, and overweight for ALL of them.

    For eight of those years, I worked at a job where I was on my feet the entire time I was on the clock. I was lifting 30 pound trays hundreds of times a day anywhere from knee level to two feet over my head, walking 100 feet back and forth 100 or more times. Going up and down to sweep 10 pounds of letters out and move to them to the side, up and then in a tray. Having to walk 1/2 a mile just to get to my workstation, and another 1/2 mile to walk to my car again. Having to walk another 1/3 mile to go to break, and then another 1/3 mile to go back to my work station. To go to lunch. To go to my second break.

    Care to guess how much weight I lost doing this, five, six or heck, even seven times a week, sometimes 70-80 hours a week?


    You’re reading it right.


    Before anyone stupidly goes there, there was nothing wrong with my thyroid. There was nothing wrong with my insulin levels. There was NOTHING wrong with me!


    All that exercise, all that pushing my body and sweat pouring off me, and not one fricking pound lost.

    Exercise is a big fat stinking disgusting filth of a lie.

    Awua wrote on February 6th, 2014

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