Why Do I Hate Exercise?

February 16, 2009 at 3:35 pm (Dieting and Fitness)

I don’t think I always hated exercise. I’m not quite so sure I hate exercise now. I wish I could cultivate a love of exertion. Part of me wants to be one of those sporty folks who can climb fake walls, or kick people to death from across the room, or ride a bicycle to another state.

TenFeet is an incredibly sporty woman. This still blows my mind, because when I met her, she slept 12 hours a night and smoked a pack a day. Exertion for us back then was walking to Cafe Bongo/Kairos from HRE. And now she goes to the gym, even on days when she has something else to do!

I consider exercise medicine: something mildly unpleasant that I must do in order to maintain my health. But it’s not something I wake up wanting to do. I sometimes wake up thinking about doing it, but in that case I’m merely considering getting it over with first thing in the morning so I don’t have to nag myself about it later. (News flash, that argument never wins. I always choose more sleep over working out. This was before the creepy Ikea grandma started making those devilish commercials).

People talk about endorphins and the rush and the great feeling of accomplishment that comes from working the body hard. I don’t feel these things. During the first 10 minutes of any exercise, my one thought is, “How much longer do I have to do this until I get to rest?” I’ve gotten to the point that I recognize it’s a pattern, and I can push myself to the 10 minute mark, knowing that the discomfort will subside for the next 15. The last 5 minutes find me asking the same question though.

Once I’m done, I don’t have a triumphant feeling of accomplishment. I feel just as satisfied washing a sinkload of dishes. The best I can muster at the end of a workout is, “Well, I didn’t die from that. So, I suppose I can do it again tomorrow.”

Sporty folks in the audience, how do you cultivate the love?



  1. yoko said,

    For me, going to the gym isn’t really my favorite way to exercise. When I had a gym membership, many years ago, I used to go first thing in the morning to get it out of the way. It’s a good supplement for other activities for me, but not my primary form of exercise. I find it too boring.

    I’m sure Ten Feet will give you the scientific reasons behind the endorphin rush and requisite research to back it up. I know from my personal experience that I would have to exert myself quite a bit, over many many days, before I feel the rush. So that means many many days of just exertion without any immediate reward. I think there’s a bit of suspension of disbelief going on there– knowing that I’ll feel better about exercising eventually through days of sometimes feeling pretty bad about it.

    I like exercise that involves being outside, so for me right now, that’s walking and bicycling. It doesn’t feel like as much of a chore as it is to walk/cycle in one place indoors. Aikido involves working with partners, which can be enjoyable with good people. I like swimming when I’m able to do it, just because I like being in the water.

    So perhaps looking for another mode of exercise may keep you interested in continuing to do it? Or if that’s not possible, maybe not worrying about whether it feels good to do it or not, but giving yourself a tangible goal (x number of minutes on the treadmill, x number of reps on a machine), keeping track in a notebook, and rewarding yourself (without blowing WW points- maybe buying a non-food treat?) when you’ve reached a goal.

  2. Ten Feet of Steel said,

    What turned me around was finding something that tapped into a long-seated desire that motivated me more than the exertion of exercise deterred me. For me, the desire was to be badass. That conveniently translated into sportiness once I found martial arts and my particular martial arts school. My discipline also got a big boost from both my competitiveness and my need to be good at what I do.

    It also helped a lot that martial arts takes place in a structured environment. I was distracted from the discomfort by the presence of others, or the discomfort became a bonding tool between me and other students. The presence of other students and teachers made me try harder and focus on wanting to accomplish things rather than focus on not stopping. It taught me that working the body is something to pro-actively seek, not an obligation that I need to fulfill.

    And once I made exercise (which I didn’t think of as exercise, really) part of my routine, I started to need it to feel right. It became a pleasure, something I did to work on myself. Because I wanted to be a better fighter, I started weight training at the gym, and then I discovered that weight training, rather than being the dull, brutish activity that I thought it would be, can actually be incredibly engaging for my brain and stimulating in many ways.

    The endorphin phenomenon is generally considered to happen only after extended and strenuous cardiovascular activity. I don’t know that that’s true–studies on resistance training have focused on pretty sissy routines. But the endorphin response is extremely variable between individuals, and many people don’t really experience an endorphin rush, no matter how much exercise they do. Very few people will experience such a thing in a 30 minute – 1 hour workout.

    That said, lots of other nice effects of exercise are extremely pleasurable, even if they aren’t strictly a high. The increased circulation, the expansion of breathing passages, etc. can induce a really nice sensation of well-being for many hours afterward. I find that I sleep better and my allergy symptoms decrease dramatically. Little aches and pains disappear over time, etc. The trick is that most of these effects only happen at high levels of effort.

    That’s the problem with the usual exercise that is recommended to people who want/need to lose weight. Getting on the exercise bike or treadmill for 20-30 minutes a day and plodding along at an easy-moderate pace won’t open anyone’s eyes to the joy of exercise. At best, it will provide satisfaction at fulfilling an obligation, and that’s not very strong motivation for many of us, since the obligation is self-imposed.

    It’s also deadly boring and any discomfort and boredom produced by the exercise is magnified a thousandfold by it tedium.

    Also, doing strenuous cardio is actually a huge problem for people who are carrying around a lot of extra weight. The limbs don’t track correctly because of the shape of the body, the stress on joints can be damaging, conforming to equipment can be uncomfortable, etc.

    I personally would recommend to people who are carrying around a lot of extra weight that they take up strength training with free weights.

    There are lots of reasons for this.

    1) It’s easier to get motivated to lift weights than to run. Weight training lets one exert the body near its limits, but it’s done in short bursts. This makes it much easier to turn off the parts of the brain that look for reasons to stop. If you’re spending 45 seconds doing something that requires great concentration and effort, you don’t really have time for that part of the brain to kick in.

    2) Free weights let the body track in a natural way, which is a feature that is more and more important the further away one is from the “standard” body configuration for which most equipment is made. There’s also less repetitive movement involved with weight training than with cardio. If one’s movements don’t track optimally because of one’s body shape, then an exercise program with less repetitive movement is safer.

    3) I think weight training is more effective for fat loss than cardio. Exercise in general has been shown to have very little effect on weight loss. That said, I have personally never lost any significant fat without a regular exercise routine that was heavily loaded with strenuous resistance exercise. Aside from metabolic changes from building muscle mass, weight training increases one’s craving for protein and one’s attention to how much protein one eats. More protein = less in the way of carbohydrates. Less carbohydrate in the diet = easier fat loss. I find that cardiovascular training, on the other hand, increases desire for carbs. I’m not sure whether this effect is physiological or psychological, but I’ve observed it’s the case for most people. Too many carbs can make fat loss extremely difficult to achieve unless one is doing an ungodly volume of cardio.

    4) Weight training is a solo activity. Not that this is your case, but a lot of overweight people are embarrassed about their bodies and any physical limitations their weight places upon them. While a group/class activity setting can be motivating, it can also seem rife with potential embarrassment to many overweight people. Weight training does not require one to keep up with others or compare one’s progress to a group’s mean. It has a very low humiliation quotient. One competes only against oneself.

    5) Weight training makes you mad strong. There’s nothing more motivating than feeling yourself becoming mad strong. For me, it’s much more motivating than being able to run [x] miles longer than before for the simple reason that I have many more opportunities to enjoy strength throughout the day and feel how I was stronger than before. Opening heavy doors, carrying things up the stairs, bolting up the subway stairs, opening jars, etc. It’s a boost to self-esteem and provides ample inspiration to look forward to the next workout. Realizing that I’m able to do something I couldn’t before because I am stronger is more fulfilling than skinniness or any other aesthetic effect. It’s a good way to embed into one’s life a desire for exercise which is not entangled with the many negative emotions that come with dealing with one’s weight. Eventually, the feeling that one’s body is getting stronger and more capable inspires a person to try things like climbing rocks or biking to Canada.

    As for cardio, weight training does not have zero cardiovascular effect. If you’re lifting heavy, you’ll breathe heavy. The heart is involved. But in a way that doesn’t make you want to rip the lungs out of your own chest to put yourself out of your misery. I do think some cardio is important to health. But I would recommend that one start with the weights to establish an exercise routine and to cultivate an enjoyment of exercise. Over time, as body fat goes down and the body gets to a weight and shape that makes cardio easier, incorporating cardio will become both more practical and more enjoyable.

    I guess that’s more like $1.50 than $0.02, huh?

  3. yoko said,

    Ten Feet– I swear you’d make a great personal trainer or physical therapist.

  4. Ten Feet of Steel said,

    One of these days, I might get into that line of work.

  5. ashyknees said,

    I don’t qualify as sporty, but I’m in much better shape than many people because I commute on foot everyday. I don’t know how much outdoor walking you can do comfortably and safely, but one advantage it has over treadmills and such is if you walk 10 or 15 minutes and get bored, you can’t quit because you’ve got to get back home (or to your office) somehow. It’s also cheap. You might prefer to kick someone to death, but a short lunch time walk can blow off steam much more conveniently.

    Since exercise in and of itself isn’t going to be a source of great pleasure for us non athletes for now, we can let ourselves off the hook for not gleefully skipping to our workout and achieving the Big E endorphin rush. Every time you say “Well, I didn’t die from that” is time to congratulate yourself.

    I agree that the pleasure of mastery (or in my case, the relief of sucking less) can be a great motivator. The last time I exercised regularly was when I was in the ultimate frisbee league. Knowing that exercise would improve my play made it much easier to do. Focusing on a skill also takes my mind off the tedium.

    On a related note, any chance you’ll get to try orienteering soon?

    Do you notice that you feel a bit livelier and stronger a few minutes after exercise? Do you notice a bit more feeling in your limbs (discomfort not included)?

  6. Quiconque said,

    Unfortunately, sustained walking is still a challenge for me with this foot. I did a lot of walking in SF, but I also sat in buses and on benches and every night my foot was swollen up to the knee. So, orienteering is a bit beyond me still.

  7. Ten Feet of Steel said,

    There are some days when I feel energized and extra zippy after exercise. Other days, I feel pleasantly exhausted–tired in body but mentally alert and cheerful.

    Sometimes, I feel just dead tired and leaden. That almost always means I’m coming down with something, or I have been overtraining.

    I think enjoyment of exercise can be attributable somewhat to individual temperament, but I’m pretty sure nobody loves it in the beginning. That’s why something like kung fu or ultimate frisbee can be so useful in the beginning. After a person makes it a regular routine for 6 months or so, though, it usually becomes something s/he values and make time to do. It’s around that point that it inspires people to make other alterations as well (quitting smoking, drinking less, changing schedules to allow for optimal exercise time, adding other forms of exercise, etc.).

    Oh, the other great thing about the weights is that you don’t have to lift them every day. In fact, if you’re doing lengthy lifting workouts (with few exceptions, I believe lengthy means 45 minutes or so–I don’t think most people should plan a lifting workout longer than that), you should avoid training every day. If you do choose to do it every day, though, you not only can lift for as little as 10 minutes a day (I recommend around 20–remember that over half that time can actually be rest time between sets) and still get benefits, you probably should lift for no more than 20 minutes.

    This makes weight training ideal when you’re recovering from injury. Just take down the range of motion a notch, dial back the poundages, and it will help you recover. Overall, the number of repetitions of movement the injury undergoes per day is minimized, yet the body is still being stimulated to strengthen itself.

    I dragged along for months past what I thought it would take to get my knee shipshape. Once I brought back my weights routine (with light poundages, since I was not only recovering from injury but also out of shape from the two years before the surgery when my training was severely hampered by knee pain), I made rapid progress. My knee still gives me mild trouble now and again, but usually when I forgo exercise for more than a week because of sickness or work. Then it becomes inflamed and irritable and it pains me.

    In the TCM paradigm, I need the exercise to clear out the blockages around my knee (and out of my body in general). In the Western medicine paradigm, exercise is anti-inflammatory and it stimulates healing. This has been of huge benefit to me.

    Some research suggests that on of the best way to trigger the body to ramp up healing is through full-body, compound, weight bearing exercises with large range of motion.

    For someone recovering from surgery, I’d say lift 10 minutes in the morning, then 10 minutes when you get home from work. It spaces out the stress and gives the body recovery time in between but still keeps the volume of work high enough to stimulate the body. It also really decreases the psychological resistance to exercise.

  8. Ten Feet of Steel said,

    Qui, for you, I’d recommend buying/borrowing some dumbbells and starting weight training in your home. 10 minutes in your own house before work and 10 minutes when you get home should be fairly easy to stick to while still providing great benefits.

    Any other exercise you get while in the gym (stationery bike, etc.) can just be gravy on top of this basic routine.

    You can borrow my 25 lb kettlebell for a while if you want (25 lbs can be quite challenging in kettlebell form, so you should be able to get benefits from it for a while). I can train you on it.

    I also recommend you get yourself some dumbbells of various weights. I’m sure there are people who own some and are not using them who can lend them to you for a few months, if you don’t want to invest in any. Or, if you want, I will accompany you on an outing to a sporting goods store and offer my advice on what to get.

  9. Quiconque said,

    Sounds like a plan. Thanks!

  10. yoko said,

    I have a pair of 5-lb. dumbbells I can give you if you want them.

  11. Quiconque said,

    Thanks, Yoko. I’m well-covered on the dumbbells for now. I own (but really don’t use, and that’s the problem) two of each: 5 lb, 8 lb, 10 lb, and 20 lb. I should be able to construct a workout from those. That shall be my fitness goal this week.

  12. Quiconque said,

    Somebody I know was able to do some simple arm exercises AND SUMO SQUATS last night.

  13. Ten Feet of Steel said,

    Excellent! You know how I love sumo-style!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: