Lorie Parch was a hater. An exercise hater, that is. As a writer in her early 30s in New York, she had every reason to be: It was cold, she was busy, she was tired. “I didn’t know where to start,” says Parch, 49, the editor-in-chief of Addiction.com in Los Angeles.
Sound familiar? That’s because “this is most of America,” says Adam Wright, a personal trainer in New York and doctoral student in sport and exercise psychology at Temple University. “People don’t want to be sweaty, they don’t want to be uncomfortable, they don’t want to be sore,” Wright says. “Most people are over-stressed and pained already. Why the heck would you want more of that in your life?”
In fact, about 80 percent of the U.S. population isn’t meeting the federal government’s physical activity recommendations to get at least 2.5 hours of moderate exercise a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some people may be especially averse to exercise. In a 2013 study in the American Journal of Physiology, researchers bred 26 active rats with each other, and 26 lazy rats with each other, based on how much they ran on wheels in their cages. After 10 generations, they compared their brains and identified 36 genes that may play a role in exercise motivation.
“Genes … definitely impact how we experience exercise,” from perception of intensity to ability to adhere to a particular regimen, says Wright, who was not involved in the study. “Some people are super-responders, some people are under-responders and some people will actually not respond at all.”
But even under-responders can learn to love, or at least appreciate, exercise. Here’s what Wright and other experts say you should do if you’re convinced that exercise just isn’t your thing:
1. Redefine ‘exercise.’
I say “exercise,” you say “gyms, treadmills, weights.” I say “exercisers,” you say, “people who are fit and rich – not me.” But, says sport psychology consultant Gregory Chertok, “that doesn’t have to be an accurate depiction of what exercise is.”
“Everything from ballet to yoga to gardening to lovemaking to lunges in the shower or jogging between grocery aisles can be considered exercise,” says Chertok, director of mental training at CourtSense, a junior tennis academy in Tenafly, New Jersey. “While one’s image of exercise may be different than the typical gym environment, that doesn’t make it any less effective or any less real.”
Even better, research suggests that simply shifting your mindset about what constitutes exercise can affect your health – even if your habits don’t follow suit. In one well-known 2007 study in the journal Psychological Science, researchers told a group of hotel maids that their work was good exercise and met the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. Four weeks later, the maids’ behaviors hadn’t changed, but they had lost weight and body fat, and reduced their blood pressure, compared to the maids who hadn’t been given that information.
“Perceptions matter,” Wright says. “What we think of as exercise and what we think of as not exercise maybe has to change.”
For Parch, the transition from exercise hater to lover came when she forced herself to think of a time she enjoyed movement. The answer? When she was a kid growing up in Arizona, where she played racquetball, softball and swam.
“They always say, ‘Find something you like,’ and then you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t like anything,’” Parch says. “So you probably have to dig pretty deep, and you might have to go back pretty far.” Her memories inspired her to find a New York City pool and jump in.
Recent research supports Parch’s technique. A 2014 study in the journal Memory found college students who were prompted to think about a positive memory that would motivate them to exercise were more likely to work out the following week than those who didn’t reminisce – regardless of their attitudes, motivation and exercise habits.
Still stumped? Even recalling a negative memory that motivates you to exercise is more effective than staying in the here and now, the study found.
3. Do it for the ‘wrong’ reasons.
If you think you should exercise for the long-term health benefits, you’re right. But if you think motivating yourself in those terms will work, you’re wrong.
“Improved health or improved appearance … are good benefits, but they’re not generally motivating enough to make the exercise compelling enough to do today,” says Emily Mailey, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University who studies interventions that promote physical activity. Instead, she says, focus on more immediate benefits you’ll get from exercise, such as boosted energy, strength or mood.
Not sold? Consider what you do value or enjoy, then find a way to fit fitness in. “Figure out what’s going to make the behavior meaningful for you,” Mailey says.
If you treasure time with friends, for example, suggest regular walking dates. If you love indulging in a particular TV show, watch it while jogging on the treadmill. If value spending time with your kids, get active with them by taking bike rides or throwing dance parties in your living room, Mailey suggests. “Think of those as ways you’re aligning the exercise behavior with other things that you enjoy,” she adds.
4. Give yourself time.
When Parch first got back in the pool, she braced herself for misery, since it usually takes her about three months to get past a new activity’s initial discomfort when she’s out of shape. “It doesn’t take much time at all to lose fitness,” she says.
But pushing through the pain has its merits. One 2012 study in the European Journal of Neuroscience found that rats forced to run on automated wheels for six weeks reaped the same anxiety-reducingbenefits as rats who could run on their wheels whenever they pleased.
Over time, however, reluctance can turn into inspiration. “As you gain fitness, there are more ‘aha’ moments,” like running 6 miles for the first time, Parch says. “And then it becomes more fun.”
Her experience is a case in point. Since her days as an exercise hater, Parch has enjoyed boot camps, trained for a half marathon and even launched ih8exercise.com to help convert other fitness-averse people.
“[Having] the confidence to say, ‘I’m just going to check this out’… is a whole different feeling than, ‘I’m going to be the biggest person in there. I’m going to be the slowest person. I haven’t sweat in 15 years, and I don’t like that feeling,’” Parch says.