November 06 2014

Are You the Working Out Type?

By Mark Sisson
45 Comments

Group workoutI think we all know people who have for the most part enjoyed exercising throughout their entire lives. They played sports from a young age. They were always on the move as kids – running farther, biking faster, climbing higher, competing harder. On the flip side, there are those who have had to push themselves more motivation-wise in the fitness department. The same degree of activity didn’t appeal from an early age, even all things being equal in living circumstances. How many of us, for instance, know siblings who span the entire spectrum of fitness orientation? What happens not just in childhood but in adulthood when the draw of physical activity isn’t just play but health and longevity. What personalities tend to work out more? Who enjoys it more? And what are the means we can explore to make exercise a more appealing personal endeavor if we’re not among the more naturally gung-ho?

The research on fitness and personality reveals some interesting dimensions. Much of the research revolves around the so-called “big 5” personality traits (conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to experience) as a means of analyzing what exercise choices and behaviors work best for individual people. For example, the more conscientious you are, the more likely you are to exercise regularly. Wherever you fall on that particular scale, logistical choices that support your consistent practice are obviously important. You know how much structure you need.

If you’re extroverted, obviously relying on your own willpower to go it alone for that daily run at 5:30 every morning probably isn’t going to cut it. If you score high on the “open to new experience” trait, novelty should clearly be a priority. If you tend toward the neurotic (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you might consider that regular exercise can balance out your emotional landscape (e.g. anxiety) in positive ways. Convincing yourself to make working out a daily habit might revolve more around recognizing the mental health benefits than the physical. Agreeableness/aggression, for what it’s worth, didn’t appear to influence exercise behavior.

Interestingly, in one study the “neuroticism” trait and its assigned opposite – resilience – showed the most influence on fitness – not just in terms of engagement but performance. The more “resilient” (emotionally flexible) of the 642 participants had a greater aerobic capacity. While the findings don’t reveal a cause and effect relationship, it introduces the question of whether our emotional resilience encourages us to develop our physical capacity or (alternatively) if physical fitness breeds psychological balance. (From a hormonal perspective, I think there’s more evidence for the second.)

While the research might suggest that certain traits make exercise overall a more appealing choice for some people, I think it’s important to not run too far with the idea that certain personalities tend to embrace fitness more or might (in some studies) perform better along given physical measures. Research shows the social environment, for example, significantly influences both adolescents’ and adults’ experience during exercise. When an activity supports a person’s sense of competence, autonomy and relatedness, these studies show, he or she is likely to enjoy it more and feel more motivated. Too often, however, our past experiences around formal “exercise” cut this fulfillment off at the pass. I wonder, in particular, how much of the introvert/extrovert exercise performance or enjoyment discrepancy could be ameliorated by these conditions.

Likewise, any of us can enhance our emotional resilience, whatever our innate “profile” might predispose us to. While we may not be able to shift our introversion/extroversion set points much, I’d venture to say most introverts (certainly those I know and love) say context matters a great deal.

The fact is, there’s much more at work for most of us than a clinically defined psychological trait.

By the time we’re adults, we’ve amassed a significant layering of experiences that definitely color our perception of “exercise” and whether we consider it our bag. Everyone from our parents to middle school gym teachers, extracurricular coaches and (of course) our peers at one point or another transferred their messages about our competence and skill – whether we were “cut out” for fitness or not. Additionally, we decided on some level whether we belonged in the social circles that revolved around athletics or other physical activity. We looked at what was available and considered “exercise” to decide how much interest we had. Maybe we found the options lacking and learned to identify ourselves with other endeavors.

For some of us who weren’t athletes in the formal sense, we were lucky enough to have found a solitary or otherwise alternative means to be active outside of the school-focused extracurricular realm. Maybe we practiced a martial art or dance. Perhaps we were nature buffs and still spent as much time outdoors during our teenage/twenties years as we did as children. Maybe we were bike commuters to jobs or school.

Sometimes it was a matter of practicing an activity that served a given need and more or less stuck with it. It might have boiled down to economics or logistics (e.g. bike commuting, physical labor occupation). Over time, however, I think we come to identify ourselves with our activities (and activity levels) regardless of our original intention behind them. Our fitness levels become less about whether we perceive ourselves to be a “type” and more about how an activity serves a purpose in our practical lives. In a sedentary, car-oriented culture, this is harder to come by these days.

For others of us, however, we found an activity that fit a personal interest. Perhaps we found our way there through social means (e.g. joining friends who enjoyed anything from Ultimate). In other cases, we discovered individual gratification from a solitary pursuit. Maybe an evening bike ride or weekend hike regularly provided a kind of needed therapy through a difficult time. Perhaps we learned that we could experience simple joy through ice skating or swimming laps or caving.

Whatever the case, we forged an investment of one kind of another in an activity and came to see it as part of how we live our everyday life and self-care. This, I believe, is a more potent and sustainable motivator than guilt. Health is one of the few things in life for which the end almost always justifies the means, but why accept obligation when you might enjoy a greater satisfaction?

Thanks for reading, everyone. What do you think of the personality-fitness connection? Has it influenced your choices? How did your find your motivation, and how did past messages support or discourage your identification with fitness? Have a great end to the week.

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45 thoughts on “Are You the Working Out Type?”

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  1. I’m in the “not working out” camp. I don’t mind weight lifting but I abhor cardio. With the demands on my time between work and home life with two small kids I’d never get to a gym if it wasn’t for my work. I’m allowed 3 hours per week for exercise so I can either work or I can go to the gym 1 hour 3x/week so I go to the gym.

    Without that I’d be lucky to do any exercise per week and I’m very thankful for it.

    1. That is a really great idea that your work allows for that. I think a lot of companies would see productivity gains if they provided for around 3 hours per week during working hours for exercise!

  2. I think different personality types embrace exercise for different reasons, but I’m not sure there’s a personality type that leans toward exercise more overall. For me, being naturally more introverted I’ve always found exercise a great way to be alone with my thoughts and running long distances alone is invigorating rather than boring, as some people feel it is. Finding what motivates you regardless of personality type is what makes exercise stick.

    1. Interesting! As an extrovert (I think…) I find that podcasts help me get through cardio, especially anything over a mile. I guess with the help of technology I can simulate conversation / social interaction while I run alone 😀

    2. Research regarding working out and personality so far shows that conscientiousness is the biggest predictor.

      In general, scoring high on the conscientiousness scale basically means that you will try and stick to your routine no matter what.

      Moreover, people who score high on this scale are less likely to run into a situation outside of their usual routine, because of this, it’s easier for them to stick to it (which can involve working out). What I mean by that, they can be more rigid in terms of their schedule so if a new situation arises unexpectedly they’re less likely to change plans in comparison to people who score low on this score.

      As far as extroversion-introversion goes, the biggest differences lies in the fact that extroverts usually pick team sports, whereas introverts pick sports for individuals, on average of course (duh), and extroverts tend to pick sports which provide more stimuli from the environment, which can (but isn’t necessarily implied) lead to more extreme sports etc.

      There’s a lot of other associations between the big Five and working out, but this can be laid down in multiple articles 🙂

  3. I’m definitely motivated by novelty. I can force myself into a gym occasionally for some weight training, and I do love squats, but mostly I’m rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, skiing, snowshoeing, etc. Efff the gym, seriously. The gym is boring. The gym is the WORST. Thankfully I’m slender and keep busy with my multiple activities.

  4. When I was over weight, I hated exercise. But now I wake up three days a week happy and excited to do a good HIIT routine.
    I enjoy how it makes me feel and I love to impress some classmates in ROTC during PT.

  5. I think I’m pretty open-minded and also generally quite lazy. I definitely cannot for the life of me keep up a “routine” of certain workouts on certain days. I just need to develop more generally active habits, and exercise in ways that are also fun (i.e. I play a lot of sport).

    I spent about £300 on a gym membership and all I really did there was play ping pong for about 6 months. Got pretty darn good at ping pong though!

  6. Am I the working out type? I don’t know…

    When I was young I was very thin & frail, not very coordinated, & very much convinced that I was at the bottom of the fitness totem pole. Yet I loved to walk & jump rope, & I’ve always been fidgety. My favorite gym class was when we were punished by having to run around the track instead of playing a sport!

    As years went by I noticed an odd thing happening. Many people who enjoyed only competitive sports were gaining weight & getting out of shape as they entered adult life, while some (like me) who preferred movement for its own sake were catching up in the fitness department.

    Eventually I did give up the endless running (to spare my knees) & replaced it with briefer &/or gentler forms of cardio. And I discovered my one true fitness love, hoop dance!

    The one thing I truly struggle with now is lifting weights. I do bodyweight exercises every morning though & recently have begun to use fitness bands, which seems a good balance of challenge vs. injury risk for me.

    So… am I the working out type? All I know is that I love to move.

  7. Definitely think it’s psychologically framed for me. I think of myself as being quite lazy- suggest ‘gym ‘ or ‘workout’ to me and I run a mile ( pun intended). However, if the kids suggest playing in the park or swimming on holiday, I’m all for it and really do enjoy it.

  8. Despite playing soccer for close to 15 years of my life, I am really not a fan of team sports. Probably because I’m terrible at them (I only played for so long because I am extraordinarily stubborn and wanted to finish what I started). However, I absolutely love staying active. I think it helps me to build activity into my daily life, and to keep a diversity of activities. I fell in love with weightlifting about 2 years ago and found some really amazing yoga teachers that keep me coming back to classes. I even go to zumba (gasp!) on occasion, because I think it’s fun to jump around to loud music. Especially when almost everyone else looks as silly as I do :). Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that staying active makes me feel really good, and I have found things to do that make me happy.

  9. In the book Quiet: the Power of Introverts, the author uses how often a person exercises as one of the criteria for measuring where you fall on the intro/extrovert scale. I’m an ambivert (right in the middle). I’m also conscientious and somewhat neurotic. So my preferences are to exercise with a close friend, spouse, etc. That’s when I’m likely to exercise most often. Working out by myself is just lonely and unmotivating, but I do it anyway, just not as often or as long as I should. Working out in a group exercise class with people I don’t know is unappealing. I do walk/run with a friend, which is awesome, but no one so far to lift heavy with or do yoga or pilates with. Before we had kids, my spouse and I would spend hours exercising together – cycling, spinning, swimming with a masters swim group, running with a local running group. I love to move, but need a buddy for motivation.

  10. I’ve done my share of working out in gyms over the years, but I mostly had to force myself. I’ve since realized I’m definitely not the working-out kind. Not only that, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a good reason for doing it, other than the fact that other people think it’s a good idea. In my book, working out and exercise aren’t the same thing. I get plenty of exercise without formally working out.

  11. Yep, I’m the “working out” type. I’m also an introvert (love my solitude), and somewhat neurotic (if I stop working out for a week I’ll get fat!) As a kid, I was always outside – riding my bike, hitting a tennis ball against the side of the house (and occasionally a window – oops), roller skating (it was the 80’s), walking my dog . . . never gave those things much thought. I simply did them because I liked doing them. When I got into high school, they made us run a mile as part of our P.E. grade. I took up running then and there, and kept doing it, 4 – 6 miles at a time, through my mid-20. Somewhere in there I also discovered free weights and strength training. Later on I learned the value of walking (instead of running), body weight exercises, isometrics, HIIT, yoga, and ballet-style workouts. In short, I’ve tried many things. The ones that have stuck are the ones I enjoy doing (strength training, ballet workouts, yoga, walking) and which I believe I can continue to do for the long haul. Pounding out 10Ks no longer appeals to me, nor does jumping from one move to another at warp speed (HIIT), and I’m fine with that. I happily cancelled my subscription to the No Pain, No Gain club. Do what feels good and you’ll reap benefits. I think this is where many people go wrong. They identifiy themselves as the non-workout type because they think exercise has to, or should, hurt.

  12. I loathe exercise, every millisecond of it. I do it but I hate it. And spare me the shallow excuses: Yes I am doing it right, yes I know what I am doing, yes I have had excellent instruction etc etc etc. You moveaholics just have to realize the other end can hate it as much as you love it.

  13. I, too, loathe exercise. But, I love physical activity. I really enjoy getting outdoors, working in the veggie garden, doing home repair and generally moving and lifting … for a reason. But, let it become regimented and I cannot keep myself motivated to continue beyond a few days.

    At work, I have started taking the stairs, if I need to go upstairs. I tried climbing the stairs as part of an end-of-day routine and bored with it rather quickly. I must say, however, about a year ago my stair climbing led to very sore knees and my search for help led me to primal. I changed my diet and fixed my knees. But I still hate regimented exercise.

  14. At a young age, I had a doctor tell me (wrongly!) that i shouldn’t do anything that would involve my knees or hands–what DOESN’T involve one or both?

    That goes to show you what doctors knew about juvenile rheumatoid arthritis back in the 60’s. I was also told that I’d probably live until my 20’s, and when I hit 20, was told I’d be in a wheelchair by the time I hit 40. I’m now 51, still upright, and still moving as well as I can with the damage I’ve accrued (and slowed down due to AIP eating).

    I guess you could say I was “artificially medically hindered” from becoming a workout person. After being told what all I coudn’t do, my mother had the presence of mind to ask what it was I COULD do. After receiving an unsat response, she decided to let me do what I wanted until I decided it hurt too much to continue.

    I biked, skateboarded, roller skated, jumped rope, played volleyball, did most floor gymnastics in school P.E. class, played piano and flute, rode horses, qand did almost every thing the other kids did–just maybe at a little slower speed. The bike races always had me coming in second out of 4 riders.

    Nowadays, I move, but at different things: mowing, car washing (X2), dog walking (none of them mine), gardening, hauling large limbs from my 30-year-old pecan tree out of my neighbor’s back yard, shopping for and carrying 40-lb. boxes of cat litter into the house and stacking up, moving furniture, and helping other people move. Yeah, it’s low and slow, but it’s about all my joints can handle right now.

    Easy chair, or rocker-recliner? Don’t own one, and never will. If I did, it would be certain death for me, because I’d get in and never get out again. Biologic medicines? I ain’t there yet.

  15. As a former gym rat, I guess I qualify as a “working out type”. I’ve tried many different sports and exercise and fitness activities over the years. Certainly I have to like what I’m doing, and, with the exception of dance, I prefer doing it alone.

    For such a quiet, unassuming person – ahem! — I can be very competitive, and it’s not always pretty. A former MA instructor said I was “scary”. So while I do enjoy competition, I don’t much like what I become when I’m competing, so I don’t anymore.

    I don’t like running, but I love walking fast and far. I like lifting weights, but with naturally lax joints and residual effects from MA injuries, I don’t lift too heavy. The same goes for body-weight exercises. I love heavy-duty gardening that involves digging, clearing, hacking, and hauling, but once that’s done I lose interest (fortunately, my husband has a green thumb).

    It took way too long, but I eventually came full circle and returned to my real passion — dancing. I don’t dance for exercise, but I exercise so I can dance. My conditioning programme combines dance and martial arts movements: Imagine sumo stomp meets Bollywood!

    As one of my fellow dancers likes to say, “If I’m going to sweat, I’d better be smiling!”

  16. Ah Mark. You have this way of hitting on the topic I’m struggling with most. How do you do that? My current struggle is exercise. I’ve been in a rut (not exercising) and I finally had to sign a contract with myself to get off my butt. I have to exercise 3x/week and get down to 158lbs by the end of the year or else I have to hire a personal trainer 2x/week for 12 weeks (cost $2500). This was the most hideous punishment I could think of so naturally it’s working. I’m 2 weeks in and am down 6 lbs and am slowly starting to enjoy exercise again. I used to be a gym rat but now hate the gym. I decided the most important thing was to do what I love (as you mentioned yesterday) so I pulled out my step aerobics stuff and have been doing that 3x/week until Sunday when I did my time trial for the 1-mile challenge. Again, perfect timing. Thanks so much for the continued motivation and thought provoking topics. You’re amazing.

    1. So, what personality type does this make me, given that “hideous punishment” is my primary motivator?

  17. I did the gym, yoga, rock climbing, hiking, and running thing for years. I always felt like something was missing from my body’s dynamic movement. Then, I discovered homesteading which includes daily: gardening, shoveling, chopping wood, gathering wood, walking, catching chickens, shearing sheep, building structures, and the list goes on. This is my new exercise now with the added bonus of cultivating a creative and functional state of being everyday.

  18. Interesting. I’ve always been in the athletic circle because I played sports, but even there I felt like an outsider because I was overweight. Made me an introvert, for the most part. Except when I was on the volleyball court or softball field, where I felt most comfortable. I’ve also always enjoyed lifting, although cardio (even just running a mile) was always challenging, physically but also mentally.

    I think I’ve overcome a lot of that since losing some weight and becoming primal. I’m more confident and thus more extroverted, and I love feeling a wee bit sore after a good work out. Mostly, though, I like staying fit because it makes me feel good, regardless of the activity (volleyball, hiking, biking, kayaking, whatever!).

  19. I’ve channeled my spontaneity, and need to learn and try new things into not doing the same exercise routine each time. Sticking to an exercise program quickly becomes dull for me, so I need to switch it up often to maintain the sense of adventure that I need.

  20. Mark’s comments on physical fitness in middle school gym class really hit the nail on the head. In that respect, well, I used just about every excuse to get out of gym class (which I did, thankfully). That said, I also did ballet for fifteen years so it isn’t as though I was lacking in the fitness department. Ballet classes were held around 2-5 times a week.

    So I think that yes, I am the working out type, as I have now transferred into weightlifting – just maybe that I am not the “conventional gym class” working out type. It works for me :).

    1. Could’ve written the exact comment myself! 15 years of dance training out of school but gym class was never something I looked forward to particularly…and I have now transferred to weightlifting too!

      I find both dance and weightlifting match my personality qualities of conscientious attention to detail and form, and being inclined to exercise in solitude (i preferred smaller or solo dance classes to big groups) and internally motivate myself to improve. Solo yoga practice and long walks outdoors also fit these criteria quite nicely 🙂

  21. Some interesting thoughts here… Because of poor and unbalanced vision, I was never good with ball sports, which made me unpopular in gym class, and taught me to hate organized sports… But, since I love activity, and enjoy movement, I became a bicyclist, a cross-country skier, and a runner. I shy away from group activities, but need no outside influence to drive me to do things. I have friends who are physical, and those who are primarily metaphysical. I wish the non-physical would discover SOME sort of physical activity to keep them alive and healthy…

  22. When it comes to exercising, I find that I need music to motivate me. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing much, and I say to myself ‘ I’ll just do a short light session’ …. but as soon as a funky cool song starts pumping in my ears…. I’m off and suddenly energetic!!!!

    Gotta have music!!

    …. how’s that song go…???….it’s all about the bass, about the bass, no trouble!!!!

    😉

  23. I’m definitely the introverted type, I prefer working out solo. I’m not against working out in groups (I’ve done sprint triathlons and tough mudders etc…) but my day-to-day workouts are usually solo endeavors. I find it relaxing that way, no gabbing, no small-talk, no chit-chat. All focus. I was never really overweight, but I was becoming a “skinny fat” guy as time passed along – especially entering into fatherhood. In a nutshell, as the fat burns off and the lean muscle starts to manifest itself (slowly but surely) that’s all the motivation I need. That in and of itself makes me excited for tomorrow’s workout. No third party needed! Less talk, all action.

  24. As a trainer, I find real results are the only motivation most people need.

  25. I am not the working out type… but I can relate to wanting to do experience oriented movement. Meaning that my default is couch potato. But provide me an opportunity to:
    Go for a hike some place beautiful
    Take a dance class
    Take a martial art class
    Go Bouldering
    Go to a rock Climbing Gym

    etc… and I’m all in! But I don’t prioritize those activities well on my own, it’s not my default… I wish it was.

  26. My Big 5 Personality profile is:

    Extroversion: Low
    Conscientiousness: Low
    Agreeableness: High
    Open to New Experiences: Average
    Neuroticism: High

    I’m HORRIBLE about working out consistently (same goes for eating well) but when I do work out it’s always a solitary activity that provide considerable psychological benefits. My main exercise is bicycle riding. Right now I’m riding a 30 year old, 30 pound steel mountain bike as a single-speed (no gears). Our subdivision has a large greenbelt that has a lot of sidewalks that for the most part are twisty and curvy and at one point, it circles and goes in and out of the main park. I like to go out a night, when there are no pedestrians, and I literally just blast around that park over and over. I’m practically riding in circles but It’s great alone time, I’m rejuvenated psychologically by the exertion and because I’m riding on a 3 foot wide strip of concrete, that isn’t a straight line anywhere, at night….I’m getting a bit of an adrenaline rush. That old mountain bike is long in the wheelbase and I only have a front brake, which isn’t working well right now, so that adds another little element of excitement.

  27. I’m not sure if I,m the working out type or not, i go from being an extrovert to an introvert depending what stage i,m in in life I’ve ran and worked out in a gym but what’s worked for me most of the time is moving meditations like Tia Chi.

  28. I’ve always hated exercise as long as I can remember even though I was relatively good at cross country for a number of years in high school.
    I’ve probably been fit once in my adult life. I am trained in nutrition & know the value of exercise, but my recent research into epigenetics & a subsequent DNA text has confirmed exactly why I am ‘genetically inclined’ not to enjoy exercise. My phase II enzymes do not all function well, neither do my anti-inflammatory & immune responses. This explains a great deal about why I have very slow recovery from exercise, feel stiff for days & have a high tendency for soft tissue damage. All in all exhausting & unpleasant for me. This has confirmed a great deal for me & once armed with this information a specific supplementation protocol can be developed so that I can get out of the vicious circle of toxin build up. I don’t think genetic predisposition should be excluded. I suppose ‘personality types’ could be put down to some sort of generic profile too.

    1. This is very helpful information. I suspect I am the same and would love to know. I’ve always hated exercise and sports in every form. I’m mystified by people who are willing and happy to do things that seem like they can only make their bodies feel bad in the short term (Crossfit, anyone?). I’m perplexed that all things that Mark considers “play” involve doing hard physical labor. Play for me is reading a great book, or talking to my sister, or planning some interior design, spending a day cooking, or organizing a closet. The most physical thing I might consider “playing” is gardening. All of these things have the capacity to provoke a state of flow for me. Apparently many of you experience flow from exercise. Huh.

      As a stay at home mom, I move a lot and rarely sit. My fitbit confirms that I average about 14,000 steps a day without doing any intentional exercise. I wish I did a better job of making myself lift weights a couple of times a week, or doing that 7 minute HIIT routine from last year’s NTY magazine.

      It would be great to see Mark explore this more. Maybe a guest post by an exercise hater?

  29. I am now in my 60s and had a knee injury and surgery that went wrong when I was a teenager. As a result of that surgery I have had a limited ability to do team sports, but know that is what I love most. I did play baseball when I was younger…but even then my poor ability to run, made it so that I was only able to play with less competitive teams.

    For this reason I have to do the gym routine, even though I hate it. I envy people who can play tennis etc. so much more fun.

  30. I too hate exercise. I recently made a correlation between that and low blood pressure. Perhaps?
    I am an introvert and belonged to a crossfit box for awhile but found that I really did not appreciate the team camaraderie that they encouraged. Every time someone said to me, “You can do it!”, I just thought “shut up already” and that’s the polite version. LOL
    I enjoyed the heavy weight activities and understood that all the other work in Crossfit is to strengthen one’s ability to move forward in the weights.
    Now I just have to figure out how to get that kind of instruction, but not in a group setting (and at a lower price than individual instruction).

  31. I recently read about the Blood group diet/personality and found it quite interesting. Particularly as a type O+…. It made a lot of sense to me and the personality traits linked to it certainly fit my personality type and preferences. This also linked to exercise levels amongst different types, or more importantly to their need for different types of exercise. What are your thoughts on this Mark?

    Thanks,
    Brett Allison

  32. Working out (walking) is a priorty for us and nothing get in the way.

  33. As a personal trainer I come across this very often. What I do find though is that almost everybody likes to exercise once they learn how to do it. Many people have literally never exercised in their life before in a serious way and have not experienced positives from it because of that. Once they can see the positive effects they often go from hating it to loving it very quickly!

  34. Hi everyone,

    I am a final year marketing student and I am conducting a study on living a healthy lifestyle and working out

    I am wondering if there are ever times that you feel like it is too hard to keep working out because you aren’t seeing the results you has hoped to ? If so, how do you motivate yourself to keep going?

    I am not trying to offend or upset anyone here I am just trying to gain an understanding of all aspects of working out?

    I am looking forward to your replies

    Thank you

  35. Lisa,

    Was that in response to my post?

    If so, do you mind explaining what happened and if you got through it, how did you do so?

    Caroline