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 used to absolutely love to exercise, as a child, I used to run, play sports, and spent most of my life on horseback. Unfortunately, when I was a freshman in high school, I tore my ACL in my knee playing basketball. After that, I tried and tried to continue these sports but continued to tear the ligament small bits at a time which was excruciating. The summer before my senior year in high school, I completely finished tearing out the ligament and had to have surgery….that was the end of basketball. I continued playing other sports after I healed up, including rodeo and softball, but then 10 years later, I blew out the other ACL playing softball. This second surgery really hit me hard and I gained a lot of weight. I have had trouble exercising much since, because the 1st knee now has no cartilage and the doctor told me I need a knee replacement but he won’t do it until I am at least 50 (I am 36).
    I hate going to the gym, it hurts, and I feel very out of place, overweight, and it just isn’t fun to me. What I found to help me out is that I dance… The town I live in has country western dance lessons three nights a week and I am a regular there. I then dance with all the guys who are learning afterwards so I end up being there for about 2 hours a night. I have a ball and come home soaking wet (always so hot there, but I am working my tail off too). I thoroughly believe in “play” and finding something you enjoy so much that you don’t want to miss it at all. I have been living primal and playing since December of 2011 and have never felt better. You can do it!!

    Tana wrote on July 27th, 2012
  2. I hate working out in gyms, outdoors, and definitely with other people. I hate the clothes, I hate the shoes, I dread the possibility that I might have to talk to someone before, during, or after a workout. In all seriousness, if I needed to drop a few pounds and had to choose between going to the gym and starving myself, I would decide without hesitation to stop eating.

    So, you can imagine, I thought exercise just wasn’t a thing I was ever, ever going to be into.

    But. I went to YouTube a few months ago and did a search for a beginner-level Pilates routine to test-drive. I got hooked on it immediately. It’s right up my alley. I love that I can decide on the length and focus of the routines, and best of all, I can do them by myself, wearing whatever clothing I want, in the privacy of my own, air-conditioned living room, where the only talking I have to do is to my dog when I tell her to clear out.

    Maybe something like that could help?

    Lindsay wrote on August 1st, 2012
  3. what if you enjoy running long distances? (i like to run 6 or 7 miles 2 or 3 times a week) is this really not helpful AT ALL to health? I also do a HIIT session once a week.

    Luke Williams wrote on September 19th, 2012
  4. I swam, walked, ran, played soccer, and hated it. Several years ago, I found a yoga studio that emphasizes the spiritual as welll as the physical elements of practice. It’s been some time since I’ve been in shape but that’s the route I’d take again. A lot of people think yoga isn’t physically demanding; I’ve seen “athletes” leave their first class wrung out with sweat abs exhauation after thinking yoga was a piece of cake. Good studios are pricy but worth it. A local facility near me pretends to be a studio while using metal folding chairs as props (???) so I’ll need to drive to a studio of some quality.
    And you never know, you just might have a spiritual experience on the mat.

    Robin wrote on October 12th, 2012
  5. Okay, I am totally in the “I hate exercise” club. I never liked it, even as a kid who was a normal weight. I hated PE so much as a child that I got sick every day thinking about going. Why, you might ask? Because I was a straight A student except for PE. I am now 5 feet tall, and at that time was a normal weight. However, the Presidential Fitness requirements never took height into consideration, so I got Ds. My PE teachers at all 8 grade schools and 3 high schools I went to said “if you dress out and try, you get an A!” They lied, because I dressed out every single day, tried everything they asked, and I got Cs. Lucky for me, by the time I got to high school, you could trade drivers ed and marching band for a PE class.

    There is absolutely NO type of exercise I like. I hate to walk, except from point A to point B. I hate Zumba and other dancing type fitness classes because I have no coordination and can’t keep up, so I look like an idiot. Did that enough in school in PE.

    I don’t like biking, walking (totally boring, and listening to music doesn’t help because I can’t focus on the music when I am focusing on the walk), I suck at swimming, and I don’t like anything to do with martial arts. I tried belly dancing, but couldn’t do that, either. Again with the coordination issue.

    I have been in a gym several times, but looking at size 1, totally fit women with perfect hair and fingernails in spandex exercising when it is clear they never even eat doesn’t do it for me. Makes me feel worse, as a matter of fact.

    Never, ever, ever felt that runner’s high my hubby always talks about. All I want to do is eat and sleep after working out, and yes, for those of you who will ask, I did try it for an extended time, to give it a chance. I want to curl up and sleep.

    I hate to sweat, and pretty much don’t, even in the heat of summer. As a result, I overheat, and my pulse beats in my face, and I feel sick. Causes problems even when we go camping with the Scouts.

    By the way, the Europeans don’t choose to exercise. It costs too much to fuel a car, there is no parking, and the roads are difficult to manage. They walk because it is cheap and easy to do with no money. They also rent bikes like we do strollers in the malls. Put in your debit card and pull the bike off. If you return it, you are charged for the day. If you don’t, they charge your debit card for the price of the bike. They also (up until the last couple of years) all smoke. That kills appetite and keeps them slimmer. I know. I lived there for 3 years.

    I am sorry that you don’t believe that there is anyone who actually hates any form of exercise, but I do. This may violate a rule to say, but I even hate to engage in sex. Too much work for too little gratification. It is like riding the roller coaster in your favorite amusement park. Stand in line 45 minutes, spend a few minutes getting to the peak, then 10-15 seconds of thrill and it is over. Not really a reason to do it often. And yes, I am married, and do engage in sex for him, but I see no point. He wants me to enjoy it, and I can reach a peak, but I really don’t want to. Seems like a waste of time.

    What do I really enjoy? Reading, playing piano, watching really good Robin Williams movies, traveling with the family, and laughing. None of those classifies as a fitness routine, regardless of how much laughter can benefit you.

    Maybe it was all the President’s fault. Tell kids they have to perform to a standard, grade them on their ability to do it, and then tell them they need to improve. To a straight A student, that was all it took turn my dislike of physical activity to hate. Why humiliate yourself further?

    In answer to anyone’s question, yes, I was a normal weight for my height in school. I was not obese until after I gave birth a couple of times.

    So, when you are preaching to others about how good it is for you, how much better you feel, and how everyone has something they like to do, remember you aren’t always right.

    This sounds like an attack, but really, it is just a frustrated person sick of hearing that there is something out there that will make you feel wonderful, excited, and energetic. There isn’t for me, and some others might have similar experiences.

    Mischelle40 wrote on February 13th, 2013
    • Both Mischelle and Awua have summed me up pretty well.

      I have been trying for so long to find whatever I’m supposed to find enjoyable that I can’t take it any more. I’ve done the gym (weights, steady state cardio, everything), classes, walking, dancing, rock climbing, sports, boot camp, personal trainers, videos at home, stationary bikes, outdoor activities, geocaching, and probably dozens of other things I can’t even think of. I’ve tried HIIT, slow and stead, whatever. Nothing takes. I’ll do it for months and months and it’s never any more pleasant than the first time I go. I get worked up to tears just trying to force myself to do SOMETHING that I just want to go sit in a closet and hide from it. This isn’t just exercise – this is cleaning the house, going to school/work, and doing pretty much anything else that doesn’t involve laying in bed, reading a book, or staring at my computer.

      I have chronic life-long depression that doesn’t respond to medication – the number one recommendation? EXERCISE.

      I also have serious social anxiety problems compounded with low self-esteem and poor social skills that make it seem impossible to face seeing even one person most days. Same thing – number one recommendation is EXERCISE.

      So what do the people like us do? Fitness people tell us to go to the doctor and the doctors tell us to go to the gym. Round and round it goes. I’d really rather just stay at home and be fat and die early, to be honest, but then I feel guilty and anxious about that too and cry over NOT going just as much as I cry about GOING.

      Sucking it up doesn’t work – I just don’t have that sort of ability to self motivate, and I’ll go maybe once or twice before it’s just too unbearable to make myself go ever again. External motivation doesn’t do it either – I honestly just don’t care about anything enough to work for it. (Number one recommendation for fixing that sort of apathy and anhedonia? EXER-EFFING-CISE.)

      Alice Crosby wrote on July 10th, 2013
      • Oh, and ditto about the sex. I’m not all that inclined to do that either…..It’s just another thing that involves putting in a bunch of effort, feeling gross, and yeah – the payoff just isn’t worth it. I am also married, and I feel horrible and guilty about that too. I realize Mischelle wrote this months ago, but if she sees it I just wanted to let her know that I totally understand her point of view on that matter too.

        Alice Crosby wrote on July 10th, 2013
  6. You will never convince me to enjoy exercise. I find it the most VACUOUS and mind-numbingly boring bollocks–EVER.

    And none of your suggestions work for me.

    1) Workout partner? This is phenomenally stupid in my case. I think exercise is a necessary evil and hate it to my bones. So I’m ALREADY angry about having to do it, and I’m Asperger’s on top of it. A partner is TORTURE to me. They want to titter and say STUPID things and want responses when I just want to get it over with and forget the nightmare as soon as possible. I have a hard enough time having any friends. I’d have NONE if any of them were stupid enough to join me for a workout. Don’t even ask what happens if they try to worm their way into being there. IT IS NOT PRETTY. I’d rather lose a friend than work out with them.


    2) I’ve never believed that dopamine exists. I have NEVER experienced this supposed high some people get from exercise. No matter how much I work out, I NEVER feel good about having to do this necessary evil. I don’t feel good during it. I never do. And because I find it so completely unpleasant as a physical sensation, I get even ANGRIER about having to do it.

    3) It doesn’t matter HOW LONG the workouts are. I hate it, start to finish. I cannot find any pleasure in this stuff, other than the results. And that’s not enough to make me like what it takes to get them.

    4) I don’t like ANY physical activity. There is no play to it for me, and never was. I hated going outside as a kid. I hated being pushed and prodded into games and play and activities, all of which I hated. It’s all torture to me.

    5) The meaning of exercise is to be fit. It’s unpleasant, but necessary, like paying taxes, or being nice to the uncle who hits the sauce too hard at holiday gatherings. Same thing, to me.

    6) I was never the kid picked on in gym class. I didn’t have any problems with doing any exercises, or being slow. I was even the kind who would be good enough to be a consistent winner when gym class split up in teams. I do them well. But I was in gym class ONLY because the school forced me to be there. I did not choose to be there, and I wouldn’t have chosen it. Ever. I can remember that one of the first things I checked when I went to high school was what PE requirements were for graduation–and being THRILLED that I wouldn’t have to take it my senior year! That was better than my birthday and Christmas rolled up together to me!

    So there are no ‘issues’ for me about exercise other than considering it a necessary evil.

    7) It doesn’t matter what exercise I do. I hate it. It doesn’t matter how long I do it. I hate it. It doesn’t matter how I mix it up. I hate hate hate it.

    People who find it enjoyable for ANY reason are like aliens from Andromeda to me. I don’t get it.

    At my age, I don’t think I ever will.

    Awua wrote on February 16th, 2013
  7. Whenever I exercise, particularly when running, I have to fight down the voice inside that says, “WEAK, SLOW, UGLY, STUPID, WORTHLESS, USELESS, FAT. GIVE UP! GIVE UP! GIVE UP!”

    Taylor wrote on February 25th, 2013
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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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