We usually know when we need to make changes in our lives. It can take a while for that knowledge to evolve into action but, at some level, we know. We may not know how or where to start but it’s unlikely we’re unaware that making the change we’re contemplating would be a good idea. I suspect very few people actually benefit from hearing a parent, friend or therapist tell them they should get some exercise. It’s unnecessary and feels judgy. As if they don’t already know! Yet, knowing and doing can run parallel for a very long time. Why is it often so hard to start the things we know will have the biggest positive impact on our lives? Why isn’t it easier to get off the couch?

Cards on the table. I am both the parent who has suggested my daughter go for a walk more times than I care to admit and the person who bristles when someone tells me I should be exercising. I know it’s good for her, I know it’s good for me, and I know that I’m a bit of a hypocrite on the subject. Don’t be me.

Here’s what else I know. Physical activity decreases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Exercising helps reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. It promotes mental wellbeing. We feel good when we get our hearts pumping. We feel accomplished and capable. Many of us, myself included, have enjoyed periods of our lives when we exercise regularly, habitually. And though we know how good it makes us feel, it can feel like a lost cause once we’ve fallen off the wagon or, rather, the treadmill. Why is it so hard to get back on the exercise horse when you’ve fallen off?

Creating Habits

Psychologists suggest the key is “habit”. Just as exercising regularly can be a habit, so is not exercising. It’s a habit of low physical activity. Psychologist Brad Stennerson says, “When you don’t exercise for years, you develop a habit of low physical activity. Eventually, life as a barnacle feels normal. Your daily rhythms conform to your sessile behavior, and you become comfortable existing as an oak tree.” I am an oak tree, friends (one that loves the word sessile). And it didn’t take years to become one. 

The habits we want to break (like chewing nails or drinking to excess) are often grueling to break. Those we want to hang on to can be so fragile. The inconsistencies and irony of the habit-verse are frustrating, to say the least. I can’t imagine anyone who exercises regularly wanting to eliminate that behavior no matter how much they may hate exercise. Yet, a bout of illness, a vacation, a rough patch, or, in my case, a broken shoulder and then a sick dog can pause the behavior long enough to break the habit. Once the behavior is no longer habitual, it can feel impossible to restart.

Curiously, the habit of low physical activity always seems to form, at least for me, in record time. I feel like an idiot when I try to incorporate regular exercise and I fail. But judgment isn’t helpful. We can reprogram ourselves. But it may not be as easy as we convince ourselves it will and should be. When your couch is a cozy, warm, sinkable hug like mine, it can be awfully hard to get off the couch.

A leading 2009 study on habit creation led by Philippa Lally concluded it takes 18 to 254 days to reliably incorporate a new daily activity. That’s a big range, boiling down to an average of 66 days in the study. Some experts say it takes 6 consistent weeks of behavior to effect reliable change. Coaches, myself included, often bundle sets of 6 sessions, meeting every other week, based on the premise that it takes roughly 3 months to change behavior in a lasting way.

Taking Action

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. It’s also important to participate in activities that strengthen muscles and bones at least 3 days a week. Stretching/flexibility activities keep muscles and joints healthy and decrease risk of injury. So how is someone who has perfected a habit of low physical activity supposed to get all this done? 

Some people are able to just get up and go. Others benefit from having a buddy (human or furry). Still others find they’re able to stick to a routine if they pay for a class or a trainer. The motivation to avoid throwing out money can be even more powerful than the habit of low physical activity.

When I started working on developing the habit of regular exercise most recently, I committed to a brisk walk for 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week, in addition to walking my dog (not very briskly) a few times each day. No matter how busy you believe you are, you can always find 10 minutes so I felt confident that I could do this and I did. It’s important to set yourself up for success when you’re getting started. For me, that meant creating a plan with small steps I was confident I could execute. A little success feels good and helps us keep going. Exercise is nowhere near a habit for me yet but I’m trying. My walks are longer now and I’ve added a second walk in the evenings.

In addition to setting small goals for yourself to get started, it’s important to find the mode of exercise that’s right for you. “Right for you” is code for makes you smile or, at least, doesn’t make you cry. If you hate the idea of going to a gym, check out this great list of 40 ways to exercise without exercising. As Steve Kamb at Nerd Fitness says, the best exercise program is the one you actually do.

Thinking and Trying

Something to think about: “When people ask me if I exercise I tell them I do crunches every day – especially Captain Crunch and Nestle Crunch” – Unknown

Something to try: Why not mix up your exercise routine at least once over the next two weeks and try something new? Take a dance class, try kickboxing, walk in a different direction than you usually do or in a different part of town, ride a bike, or go rock climbing. Just move your body and have fun!

Coaching Can Help You Get Off the Couch

Coaching can help break the habit of low physical activity. If you want to start a regular exercise routine but the couch keeps thwarting your efforts, we can work together to create a habit that makes you feel good.

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  1. I’ve been very lazy myself of late–after losing a ton of weight last year, I’ve gained a large chunk of it back (though in fairness, I’ve been battling a perpetually sore right quad muscle–yes, that can be seen as an excuse to be lazy). I’m just getting through a battle with illness but hope to be back at the gym next week.

    1. Unless judgment is an effective motivator for you, consider giving yourself a break. I don’t really think it’s about being lazy at all. Look at all the things you do and juggle in your life – you hardly lead a lazy existence. Getting back to exercise after stopping because of any reason life has thrown at you is just inexplicably difficult. I hope you’ve fully recovered from your illness and you’re feeling good. Wishing you the best!

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