People say “find an exercise you love” or “make it fun”, and there are no shortage of free online exercise classes nowadays. But if you’ve always hated the mere notion of getting out of breath and sweaty, how do you actually learn to love exercise?
We’re bombarded with information about why we should exercise and which exercises are good for building strength, running further or feeling better mentally. Unless you’ve been living in a bubble you probably know exercise is good for you. But just knowing something is good for you isn’t always enough to motivate you to do it – particularly if it’s not something you enjoy.
It’s normal for exercise to feel tough, but it can also make you feel fantastic!
Our bodies are remarkable things and movement itself leads to physiological (e.g. heart rate increasing, blood pumping to muscles) and chemical changes (e.g. endorphins released). These changes make us feel good up to a certain point, but when the going gets tough those positive feelings often disappear and exercise can feel like nothing but hard work. This is quite normal, and high intensity exercise can be challenging for even the most avid fitness fanatics. But the important thing is that these small moments of displeasure don’t override the more positive feelings exercise can give you.
The problem with current approaches to exercise enjoyment
There are lots of blog posts out there with tips for making exercise more enjoyable. The majority of these focus on post-exercise rewards (e.g. changes in appearance, feedback from your fitness tracker) or suggest distractions (e.g. listening to podcasts, chatting with friends) to take your mind off the exercise itself. Whilst these benefits can be helpful with motivation, the problem of focusing on these aspects (and not on the experience of exercise itself) is that you can become dependent on your friends, changes in appearance, or the feedback on your fitness tracker. Which can mean the physical feeling of exercise is still unpleasurable and if for some reason you lose these “crutches” your motivation soon dwindles.
Many people have experienced this during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns around the world. Perhaps the sport you loved to play, or the exercise class you relied upon, have moved online or stopped altogether – and you just don’t feel motivated to do anything else (if you’re struggling with this, check out motivation tips to exercise outdoors).
Learning to love the feeling of exercise could be the first step to giving you the confidence to have a go at other things.
In this blog, I’ll first consider what it means to love exercise, why this is important, and why some people might struggle with this more than others. I’ll then provide some simple steps to start you on your journey of loving exercise. This won’t happen overnight, but stick with it and you’ll soon feel like Forrest Gump (who just “felt like running!!”).
What is exercise?
Let’s first think about what I mean by the term “exercise”. Exercise refers to any physical activity we do to benefit our health and wellbeing.
Historically, we’ve thought of exercise quite narrowly to mean structured activities like Spinning classes, gym workouts or running. These activities aren’t for everyone, and this can give exercise a bad name.
But evidence shows we get physical and mental benefits from any form of movement – so exercise can also include walking, playing with the children or dancing around your kitchen to BBC Radio 2 Sara Cox’s “half wower” (my personal fave – put an 80s tune on and you’ll struggle to keep me still!).
Any movement counts
In formal academic and government reports, you’ll notice the term “physical activity” is often used to encompass this broader definition of exercise. But as exercise is more commonly used in everyday conversation (and less of a mouthful!), I tend to refer to exercise in my blogs. If you don’t like the term exercise – feel free to replace with “movement”, “sport”, or “physical activity” throughout.
The important thing to remember is that any movement counts, so if you don’t ever see yourself enjoying the gym, don’t worry. There are plenty more exciting and invigorating forms of exercise out there, and I truly believe there is something for everyone (you might just not have discovered it yet).
Is it really possible to love exercise (or do people just say this)?
Most people enjoy the feeling of exercise after they’ve done it (i.e. the “feel good factor”). Exercise can take our minds away from daily stresses and a walk in the fresh air can leave you feeling energised and refreshed. But sadly, exercise itself is often viewed as hard work and something “to get over with”.
Sometimes people who do a lot of exercise enjoy the surrounding aspects rather than the exercise itself. So they might enjoy feeling part of a social group, or how they feel after doing a workout, but if you ask them do they enjoy exercise, they might even tell you they hate it.
Whilst this is better than not enjoying anything about exercise, it can make it harder to stay motivated.
So is it really possible to enjoy the exercise itself (as well as the additional social, physical and psychological benefits)?
If you don’t believe me, think about when children first learn to walk. Every toddler loves to walk, to climb and to explore. They love the feeling of movement and they don’t like being put in their pushchairs. You maybe can’t remember it, but this was once you too.
Becoming Made Up To Move
When I was thinking about what to call my exercise psychology company, I wanted something that captured the essence of a truly intrinsic relationship with exercise. That is – something that talks to how it feels when movement feels good. That feeling of connecting with your body and what it can do, of letting your body “free” (i.e. how I feel when I’m running or doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) rather than constraining it at a desk all day (i.e. what I’m doing right now!).
For those of you who aren’t Scousers (ok, neither am I technically but having lived in Liverpool since 2003 I consider myself an honorary Scouser), “Made Up” is a local saying that according to the urban dictionary means “delighted, happy about something, over the moon!” After a long period of sitting, or when the time comes to switch off my computer and go out for a run, I genuinely feel made up to move.
You may not be at a place where “delighted”, “happy” and “exercise” feature in the same sentence – and don’t worry, you’re not alone in this. My aim through Made Up to Move is to help people discover how exercise really can become something you enjoy. How even a small amount of movement can revitalize your mind and body, and give you a sense of wellbeing and energy you didn’t think you had.
Why do I struggle to enjoy exercise?
With the pressures of modern society (e.g. work, childcare) and fear of what others think (e.g. if you want to run down the street as an adult, you’d better wear exercise clothes), many of us lose our toddler-like interest in exercise as we grow older. This can be because exercise becomes a chore, something we’re told we must do, or it could be down to negative past experiences or lack of confidence.
Social media doesn’t help either. On the one hand, Instagram and fitness apps are plastered with images of super-active people, smiling and happy while they achieve their super-human feats. Whilst this can be inspiring for some, it can also give a false impression that exercise is easy, and can make us mere normal humans feel a touch inadequate.
On the flip side, exercise is often seen as a punishment for indulging in the pleasure of eating – or put the other way, burn enough calories and you can reward yourself with food. This isn’t a healthy approach to either food or exercise (which importantly has many health benefits beyond managing your weight). In this brilliant video clip from Professor Panteleimon (Paddy) Ekkekakis, he explains why this play off between food and exercise is a problem.
Reasons you might not be enjoying exercise
It can at times feel like there’s something wrong with you if you don’t enjoy something that everyone else seems to love. Cooking is like this for me. I’ve often wondered why I don’t love cooking like everyone else seems to. Ok I love the result (eating!), but I don’t love the process. When I think about why – there are probably multiple reasons. It’s something I feel pressured to do rather than something I’m choosing to do, it’s something I’m always trying to fit in amongst multiple other things, and it’s something I don’t feel very confident in doing – the thought of cooking for other people fills me with dread.
So if you’re not enjoying exercise and want to understand why (and what you might focus on to address this), try asking yourself three questions:
- Do you feel you want to exercise? (or is it something you view as a chore, punishment or “pay off” for food?)
- Do you feel confident in knowing how to exercise?
- Do you feel you have support from friends, family and individuals who can help you exercise?
If exercise feels like a chore, you lack confidence, or you don’t feel supported, it’s likely this is affecting your enjoyment of exercise. Over the coming months, we’ll have a think about each of these in more detail – and how you might go about changing things for the better.
A note on kit and food
Of course there are also practical reasons why exercise might not feel good (e.g. if you’re not wearing comfortable clothes, or if you’ve just eaten a huge meal). You don’t need all the latest kit, or branded sportswear, just make sure you wear something comfortable and have some suitable training shoes. And if you’re a woman, it’s important to have a good sports bra. If you’d like to learn more about eating for exercise, this NHS page provides some good advice.
How will learning to love exercise improve your motivation?
Research shows that people who enjoy exercise are the most likely to keep it up in the long-term. Pretty obvious I guess – nobody wants to keep doing something they don’t enjoy.
As noted earlier, enjoyment can come from many sources (e.g. seeing friends, working towards goals). But if you don’t enjoy the feeling of exercise itself, you might always find yourself having a motivational battle.
To help explain this let’s consider the Affective-Reflective Theory of physical inactivity and exercise from Professors Ralf Brand and Paddy Ekkekakis. Imagine you’re sitting on the couch watching your favourite box set, and the time comes when you had planned to go for a run. In that moment you have a decision to make – do you go for a run or do you stay and watch TV?
If the thought of running automatically conjures up bad feelings, and you’re enjoying watching the TV, the exercise is likely to lose out. You might be able to convince yourself that exercise is good for you and you know you’ll feel better afterwards, although this is unlikely to work if your dread of running is so strong. But if you can change things so that running automatically conjures up positive feelings, this makes the whole process of getting off the couch easier. So how might you develop more positive feelings about exercise?
How to learn to love exercise
The three steps below will help you reflect on your current feelings about exercise and open your mind to the possibility of loving movement.
You’ll know you’re making progress when you feel like exercise is something you want to do, rather than something you have to do.
Research shows that writing things down will help you change. But if you really hate that idea you could record your feelings into your phone (as voice or written notes) or just start by noticing/thinking about things.
Step 1 – Make exercise meaningful for you.
Write down what life would be like if you were able to enjoy exercise. How would it impact your health, quality of life and relationships with others around you?
Step 2 – Make an action plan.
Decide on a simple exercise you feel confident you can do this week. Keep it short (e.g. 10-20 minutes), and keep the intensity at a moderate pace (e.g. walk or jog gently rather than going full out). Write down specifically what you will do and when you’re going to do this (day and time). The more specific you are at this stage, the better.
Step 3 – Write down how you feel before, during and after doing that exercise (and notice the positives)
At the moment it is time to exercise.
- What are you currently doing and how do you feel about stopping that task/activity?
- How do you feel about exercising right now?
- Is it something you want to do or do you feel like you have to do it? Why do you feel that way?
During the exercise.
- How is your body moving and how does it feel?
- If anything feels good, notice this (e.g. you might notice the feeling of fresh air, or how nice it feels to have time to listen to a podcast).
- Try and notice at least one good thing about how the movement actually feels in your body (e.g. perhaps you feel light when you move, or perhaps you notice you’re less out of breath than usual).
After the exercise.
- Write down at least one positive thing about how you feel.
- How does your body feel? How does your mind feel? What do you feel you have achieved?
- Write or draw yourself a motivational message to look at before your next exercise session. E.g. “it may feel tough now but you know you’ll feel great when you get going!” or “remember how good that fresh air felt on your face last week!”
Try and repeat steps 2 to 3 for a few weeks and you will begin to see a difference (remember if you’ve not been enjoying exercise for some time, it may not be realistic to change overnight).
The more positive experiences of exercise you have (and take note of), the stronger your positive feelings and beliefs about exercise will become (and the negative feelings will begin to disappear). In turn, these positive feelings will help you feel more motivated and getting off the couch will become easier.
Ready to take the first steps to joyful movement?
Exercise is a complex behaviour and enjoyment is only one aspect of it – but where better to start than making it something you want to do?
“Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try” – John F Kennedy
I love this quote because it emphasises that small steps are important, and that amazing things can be achieved just by making that initial decision to have a go.
The first step in learning to love exercise is to change your narrative – be aware of your negative self-talk about exercise and how this is affecting you, and be open to the possibility of change. So next time you hear yourself go to say “I don’t like exercise” or “I hate exercise”, think again. If you’re still reading this blog you’ve already made the decision to try and change this, so give yourself a pat on the back and replace those negative thoughts with “exercise is something I’m learning to love and I know I can do it!”.
Exercise may not always be easy, but it has huge benefits for your mental, physical and social wellbeing. And remember exercise need not mean going to the gym or pushing yourself to the limits – if walking or yoga are more up your street, these are also great for your body and mind.
Enjoying the “feel good” after effects and the surrounding elements of exercise (e.g. socialising, time away) is a great start, but if you learn to love the movement itself exercise can become even better.
Need more support?
Learning to love exercise is only one piece of the puzzle, but if you can crack that everything else will become a lot easier. Different things work for different people and perhaps the suggestions in this article aren’t helpful for you. I’ll be posting more blogs in the coming months related to exercise motivation, so please comment below or contact me if you have any suggestions for topics.
As I’ve spent most of my career writing academic research papers, I’m pretty new to blogging and have been learning loads from Hubspot bloggers. I’d love to hear your feedback, so please use the comments below to tell me what you like, what you don’t, and any questions you’d like me to cover in future blogs.
Dr Paula Watson is a HCPC-registered Sport and Exercise Psychologist and Director of Made Up to Move Ltd.
Made Up to Move offers psychology services to help people with the mental aspects of exercise, food and weight. If you’d like further support in understanding and changing your own relationship with movement or food, please find details of 1-to-1 support here.