Why Certain People Are Hard-Wired to Hate Exercise (and what to do about it)

Discover The So-Called Physiological Reasons Why Some People Are Hard-Wired To Hate Exercise And Learn The Simple, Rarely-Acknowledged Solution To Overcome This Predicament

Note: that photo cracks me up every time.

I know a few people who just hate exercising. Period. And truth be told, I can’t blame them. Exercise can be both boring and exciting, hard and easy. And if it’s a whole new world for you, it can be difficult to make exercise right for you (so that it’s both enjoyable and rewarding). In fact, I’d even go as far to say that most people who start exercising for the first time do so in both a boring and hard manner, which one could argue, predisposes oneself to a higher likelihood of failure. That’s just the way it goes most of the time, and it should come as no surprise when we look at the rate of quitters in the exercise community. Don’t believe me? Just join a gym around New Years and you’ll see what I mean.

Now, I was reading an article in The Wall Street Journal (thanks to John Belkewitch of Day 1 Personal Training for the reference) about how certain people seem to be hard-wired to exercise, and others are not. It was a fascinating read that sheds much-needed insight into some of the inner-workings of our physically-starved culture, and even offers a simple solution for how to improve the situation we’ve been spiraling down into for decades.

So, what I’ve done is post most of the relevant sections of the article (ie practically the whole thing actually), and I’ve included my commentary beneath each one. This is also an exercise in transparency for me because what follows is basically an inside-look at my thought-processes while reading health and fitness articles in mainstream media sources. And yes, I do come a bit unhinged sometimes. So, prepare thyself.

But alas, I’m posting my thoughts for you here, complete with a direct explanation as to the solution for those who tend to hate exercise or avoid physical activity, in general (but that’s not you, right?). You’re gonna hate me when I’m done. Ok ok. Hate may be too harsh a term. You may be slightly unsettled and feel a distinct annoyance towards me after reading this. Please hold the redhead jokes.

Here we go…

Note: selections from the referenced article are in block-quotes.

“When it comes to exercise, many people seem to fall into two distinct camps: those who love a vigorous, sweat-soaked workout and those who view it as a form of torment.”

That would be an accurate use of stereotyping. We know, of course, that this characterization represents two extremes on opposite ends of a spectrum. There are many people who reside somewhere between those two ends. Apparently, this article isn’t about those people. But at least we broke the ice.

“For example, for sedentary people, just cooking dinner could count as exercise and they need to build up to even walking, the researchers found.”

OK. First of all, that’s pretty sad. Like really sad – in a morose kind of way. But it is the reality for some people, and we’ve got to work with what we’ve got. Everyone has to start somewhere, and where we start is not nearly as important as that we start at all.  I, too, wish we were all injury-free, Olympic-level athletes ready to set world records every day, but the fact of that matter is that most people get winded while riding up the escalator. As I’ve said again and again, we are in some deep doo-doo, physically speaking.

“Dan Cederholm has tried for years to find some type of exercise he could stick with. He finds the gym boring and basketball and baseball leagues unappealing. As for running? “My shins always hurt like hell,” says Mr. Cederholm, 38, a Web designer from Salem, Mass.”

Now, I’m not trying to judge, and I certainly don’t know the whole story, but based on that finite description, it doesn’t sound like Dan tried very hard. I mean, did he really give up after those four ideas? (hint: he didn’t!) There are other alternatives, after all. I came up with 100 ways to disguise exercise off the top of my head, and had he been my client, I’d have him go through that list before throwing in the towel. And if he’s really not interested in ANY of those activities, then I probably couldn’t help him. And that’s no big deal because if you want to make this work, you need to be willing to try something new. And someone who isn’t even willing to try is just one person who wants to live a sub-optimal life with a lower chance of longevity. I respect that choice and will respectfully choose not to work with them. Just sayin’.

But as you’ll see later, that’s not exactly what happened. So, remember that name: Dan Cederholm.

“His friend Rick Johnson, on the other hand, competes in 20 road races a year. He remembers that even as a kid, when he was told to run a lap during gym class, he would ask to do extras. “To me, it seems very foreign to say I don’t enjoy sweating or running,” says Mr. Johnson, 41, an editor who also lives in Salem.”

So, Rick Johnson likes running. Good for him! Actually, it’s great for him because he found something that is physically beneficial that he actually loves to do. How about that? Maybe there’s something to that whole enjoyment factor… Nah, couldn’t be. I betcha this guy got a better set of genetics than poor ol’ Dan from before. And just between you and me, he must have picked out good parents. And let me tell you, I know all about genetics (click here for proof).

“From couch potatoes to Olympic athletes, everyone has a physical capacity for exertion, beyond which the body becomes stressed and begins to feel bad. How much stems from genetic factors—things like lung capacity, oxygen transport and the rate at which oxygen is used in the muscle cells—is still a subject of scholarly debate.”

Don’t we know it! It seems there will always be someone out there who wants to push their insecure and inaccurate beliefs about genetic limitations. They’re the whiners, cry-babies, and excuse-makers of the world who likely live miserable, unfulfilling lives. Oh…sorry. Was that my “out loud voice?”

But seriously, can’t we get over this and recognize a stark truth. Whether genetics plays a role or not, and I’m sure it does, something else we know for a fact is that, although “everyone has a physical capacity for exertion,” this capacity can be increased and developed using simple training principles. And another harsh reality: few people on Earth are even close to their maximum level of potential. That’s a politically-correct way of saying that practically everybody has massive room for improvement and that genetics really don’t come into play until you get to extremely high levels of performance. Yeah, that whole genetics excuse won’t exactly fly here – not on my watch or on my turf.

And on a related note, have you ever heard a high-level athlete – or anyone who has achieved a high level of success for that matter – crediting their genetic allotment for their success? You ever hear them talking about their genetic advantages or genetic limitations at all? Ever once?

While many in the research community are debating about miniscule data points, the men and women in the trenches are getting it done. Just food for thought.

“But many sedentary people push beyond their intrinsic range when they try to exercise too quickly or intensely, which can make them hate the activity and want to stop.”

And gee, I wonder why? It’s not like we’re utterly disconnected from our own physicality. It’s not like we’ve forgotten our true nature. It’s not like we are the most affluent society in the history of our planet and still manage to be among the unhealthiest.

(Note: If you’re new here, that was sarcasm, and it’s normal in these parts. Carry on.)

So, let’s not forget where we’re starting from today. And today, there are problems a’plenty. We are disconnected from our physical state, and because of this, we have forgotten how to listen to our body’s. We’ve dug our hole so deep that we don’t even recognize when there’s a problem. Pain is an accurate indicator, but our culture has clouded even this reliable mechanism with messages like “no pain, no gain.” Fitness seekers are utterly confused about how to exercise and this problem is compounded by our dulled senses.

“The idea hinges on something called the “ventilatory threshold.” Normally when people breathe, they expel an amount of carbon dioxide that is equal to the amount of oxygen taken in. But beyond the ventilatory threshold, the release of carbon dioxide begins to exceed the body’s intake of oxygen. This excess release of carbon dioxide is a sign that the muscles have become more acidic, which the body finds stressful.”

And here it is! THE IDEA! Every one of these articles has one. A new concept that could somehow be the one – the one that solves all our problems. And what is this epic new discovery? It appears that what these fine researchers have pinpointed is that when one exerts themselves, the body finds it stressful. Oh, lawd, have mercy!

Well, I’m sorry, but this isn’t exactly earth-shattering information. Heck. It’s hardly even breaking news. What I’d like to know is have these researchers ever gone out for a run? You know, like a real run, where you cover a respectable distance and actually challenge your body. I wonder if they’ve ever gotten a cramp – even just once.

Even though you dress it up in fancy language (e.g. exceeding your “ventilatory threshold”), a cramp is still a cramp, folks. Exercising, or otherwise exerting yourself, is known to to be stressful, uncomfortable, and yes, even cause fatigue.

“For most individuals, the ventilatory threshold is around 50% to 60% of the way to their maximum capacity, though there is tremendous individual variation. For elite athletes, the threshold may be as high as 80%, while sedentary people may hit it at 35%.”

So, you’re telling us that high level athletes can expect to be more fit than sedentary persons? Wow. How about that? Give yourselves a raise why-don’t-cha.

“By using tricks such as listening to music, people can continue to feel good even slightly past their ventilatory threshold, Dr. Ekkekakis and his colleagues have found. As people approach their maximum capacity, however, the feel-bad reaction is unavoidable.”

Ewww, that’s too bad. We actually have to get uncomfortable to improve our health and fitness? That just sounds like so much work. Gosh. Where’s my ice cream?

In all seriousness, I’m sorry, but “using tricks” to block out the experience of exercise is not necessarily the best solution. Your body is communicating for a reason, and it’s important that you pay attention to what it’s saying. Trust me. It’s for your own good. Tuning out can be a big mistake with immediate and long-term consequences – sometimes permanent consequences.

“And while both ventilatory threshold and maximum capacity can be slowly increased, people have to have enough positive experiences to stick with exercise over time so they actually can boost these limits.”

Ya think? I’m seriously beginning to doubt the efficacy of advice like this. But they’re right, of course. One can progressively improve health, fitness, and conditioning attributes over time. That’s kinda what all that exercise stuff is about.

“In continuing studies of obese, sedentary but otherwise healthy middle-aged women, Dr. Ekkekakis found that some individuals reach their ventilatory threshold after just one minute at a slow pace on a treadmill. Some women’s thresholds are so low that they would reach their maximum capacity simply by doing the dishes or cooking, says Dr. Ekkekakis.”

It’s obvious that this is an example of an extreme. That said, if one can walk for a minute at a slow pace, then that indicates there’s measurable and track-able progress to be made in a simple manner. One can always improve, no matter where they’re starting from. The goal is to always challenge your individual threshold, no matter how fit or unfit you are. Push your limits, and strive to train right to your edge, but no further.

“This means that though many weight-loss interventions suggest walking as the primary form of physical activity, it is probably too hard for many people.”

I can hardly believe I’m reading this in a mainstream media source. Rather, I can’t believe that this is literally an accurate sign of the times. Of course, there will always be people for whom walking is contraindicated or even impossible, but the fact that they are more and more becoming the norm, not the exception, is staggering. There are those who have proposed that someday, even walking will be a thing of the past, except for a fringe minority (Erwan Le Corre of MovNat comes to mind), and that’s starting to look more plausible with each passing day.

“How people interpret some of the physical sensations of exertion or fatigue, such as buildup of lactic acid in muscle or increases in body temperature, can also influence whether they stick with an exercise routine. Some people tend to read such physical cues as a sign of a good workout or progress, whereas many sedentary people just find them uncomfortable or painful, say researchers.

Elite athletes have even been dubbed “benign masochists” because they appear to enjoy the pain of exertion, says Dominic Micklewright, a researcher and curriculum director at the Centre for Sports & Exercise Science at the University of Essex in the U.K.”

Let me be very clear. There is a big difference between pain and discomfort. And an even bigger difference between pain and exertion (ie fatigue). Enjoying pain does dub one a masochist, and this in-and-of-itself isn’t a good quality to embody. However, it can provide a means to an end, which is usually why one would choose to practice it (e.g. elite athletes, special forces, etc.). That said, I would wager that most people who think they’re experiencing pain when they exercise are really just experiencing discomfort or fatigue, and cannot tell the difference because they’re so out of practice – and, as a result, out of touch with their body’s physical sensations. Just speculation, of course.

“Researchers have found several other psychological factors and cognitive tricks that can help boost the motivation to move. Three that appear critical include how competent a person feels, whether he or she feels they have some control or choice in the matter and, for many, whether the activity fosters social relatedness, says Sarah Ullrich-French, a professor in kinesiology at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash.”

And this is why the role of a trainer or coach is so important. Because most people are not competent in very basic human movement skills, and they feel like they have no control over their body. I found this out the hard way at a 5-day MovNat retreat in West Virginia, where – even as a very fit individual – I had great difficulty with very basic movement skills. This is where a good coach can step in and provide a step-by-step blueprint to help them rehabilitate themselves and then go on to greater physical pursuits in a systematic and progressive manner.

The Solution For Those Who Hate Exercise

You’re all DOOMED! Ok ok. Sorry. Just kidding.

Note: Remember Dan Cederholm from before – the guy who had tried the gym, and running, etc.? Good!

“For Mr. Cederholm, the Web designer from Salem, going back to hockey, which he had enjoyed as a boy, wasn’t an option. But the first time he played squash was an epiphany. “It was fun at the level that you don’t even realize you’re sweating your butt off,” says Mr. Cederholm, who now plays three to four hours a week with a friend or practices shots by himself on the court.

Sharon Wienbar, a venture capitalist in Hillsborough, Calif., became a rower at the age of 48 because she enjoys the feeling of speeding along on the water, discussing her workout routines with her teammates and having a coach who helps her get better. “A couple months into rowing, it was like a light switch going on in my head,” she says.

Once a “geeky, bookish” child who was always picked last for gym, Ms. Wienbar says rowing is now part of her identity and has prompted her to think of herself as an athlete.

And at age 51, she says she enjoys the physical feeling of pushing herself. “I don’t even feel like I’ve reached the maximum,” says Ms. Wienbar. “I’m in better shape now than I was 10 years ago. Maybe I’ll be in even better shape in a decade.””

So, what’s the take-home lesson. What do these people have in common? What did they do to succeed?

Why, isn’t it obvious? They fell in love with physical expression. They found something they truly enjoyed doing – something that they would do just because.

Dan Cederholm tried the gym – didn’t like it. He considered joining a baseball or basketball league because that’s what men his age do, right? He tried running, too. And none of those things clicked for him. But when he played squash for the first time, everything changed.

Sharon Wienbar, on the other hand, apparently didn’t try much until her late forties, which is when she picked up rowing for the first time. Whether she was deliberately searching for something or just stumbled upon it by accident, we do not know. But we do know that rowing is what clicked for her. It’s what made her come alive. And for her, it was about finding a new identity through rowing – the value of which I talked about towards the end of this article.

Final Words

And so, I’d say to you, forget about your ventilatory threshold, and simply do what you love. And if you need help, get help. Nothing wrong with that, and who couldn’t use a little help, right?

And again, here’s a list of 100 ways to disguise exercise (everything from pogo-sticking and leap-frog to martial arts and weightlifting). If you are at a loss for ideas and don’t know where to start, scan that list and write down the ones that interest you. Don’t over-complicate the process – just do it.

And if exercise is your thing, or you want it to be because you want the most dramatic physical transformation results through targeted training strategies, then here are a few good places to begin your search. You can’t go wrong with any of these…

Primal Stress Bodyweight Exercise Program

TACFIT Commando Bodyweight Exercise Program

The Clubbell Flow Evolution

Or, you can peruse the hundreds of articles in the Archives. Lot’s of workouts, programs, and exercises to work through in there.

Thoughts? Comments? Do you think I’m off my rocker? Should people just “suck it up” and train? Go hard or go home? Let me know in the comments below.

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Health-First Fitness Coach

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P.P.S. Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nathaninsandiego/

Reference: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324432004578304250252788528.html

8 Responses

  1. Andrew Hindson

    Sadly, the report just provides those that make excuses, more reasons not to do anything.

  2. I used to hate exercise and sit around the computer whole day.

    Then I started bodybuilding and I enjoyed every moment of it.

    Seeing improvements makes you feel great and gives you a sense of accomplishment.

  3. Hi John,

    Nice article.

    From what I’ve seen of your videos, you are pretty movement fluent, so I can’t imagine what “very basic movement skills” could have had you stumped.


  4. John,

    We’ve obviously got different (very different) definitions of what “very basic” means, but I get your drift. Thanks for the info.


  5. There’s a flippancy to your interpretation that isn’t really helpful for those looking for answers. Yes, it’s great to disguise exercise and even better to do something you love. But given that benefits come exponentially when exercise is a regular occurrence, one must admit the exertion of oneself on a regular basis is simply, plainly, UNPLEASANT.

    I am (was) a member of a Fit Dad Project in my city that recently dissolved after two years of sputtering along. The all-dad project was a mix of prior athletes, chronically fat guys, and desperate wannabes who (despite dozens of prior efforts and all the best research and preparation) just can’t manage to fold regular exercise into their lives. (Can you tell I was one of these?) It was the latest in my 20-year series of “you just gotta do this and problem solved” efforts. I’ve tried all the advice: personality-based fitness programs, my gym is 3 minutes’ drive away, I’ve tracked (and not tracked) my progress. I’ve also tried doing only fun stuff and things in groups. There isn’t a piece of published advice I haven’t tried or considered. I haven’t strung together 6 months’ of regular-occurrence exercise in my 39 years, despite many many “starts”.

    And I’m not the only one. Most semi-fit, generally healthy, semi-active guys I know would LOVE to be fully fit and fully active. These are smart, productive, non-depressed people. There’s nothing wrong with them. So why is it so hard for able men to exercise consistently?

    MY whole life I’ve been using tricks/programs/mindsets/systems and none of them work. So what’s left is the original obstacle. I don’t LIKE being active. It’s hard. At this point the obstacle I’ve identified is: I don’t like to exert myself for exertion’s sake. Exercise is not fun, pleasant, or inviting for me (and many others). It’s endless, I dread it, it’s painful, it’s repetitive when it’s lifting, it gets old when it’s social, it’s inherently harder every time if you want to keep improving. It’s a lifelong slog through assigned reading that ends when you break a hip and die. It’s not being disconnected from our physical being to admit that no, we’d rather not exercise. Our needs are met. Further work is wasteful. We’re indeed connected with our physical selves, who in 5000 BC wouldn’t have lifted a finger if the abundance of 2017 was available to them. It’s OK to admit that.

    So now my fitness journey must take me through that final, huge obstacle that nobody has cracked yet. And frankly, the fitness industry would make HUGE gains if it began with the fundamental truth that most people hold: health-purposeful exercise is fundamentally unpleasant. We make do with mental games but the essence of exercise is exertion.

    Most trainers joined the field for their love of (and belief in) exercise, right? Just for imagination’s sake, what would happen if a trainer HATED exercise like me but joined the field anyway? What sort of empathy would be possible if a trainer looked someone right in the eye and said “I know how much you don’t want to be here. I know how much this sucks for you. I’m not going to ignore how you feel. I don’t like it either.” Just as tightrope walkers are afraid and DO IT ANYWAY, what guys like me need is a mental framework that lets us be ourselves (disliking regular exertion) and get fit anyway.

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