How to exercise—when you don’t like to exercise
“I wish I was the kind of person that loves to exercise… I’m just not that guy.”
My friend Dave takes a sip from his perfectly poured pint, while explaining his reluctance to exercise.
“I’m the guy who’s really into beer,” he adds. “I have no interest in exercise. Beer is my thing. That’s who I am.”
Dave, like lots of people, knows exercise is something he “should” do. But it holds no appeal.
Going for a run—and actually enjoying it? Unfathomable to him. The gym? Forget it.
Coaches, doctors, and fitness enthusiasts love to espouse the benefits of physical activity: It makes you feel good! It’s rewarding! It’s necessary!
Yet, like a triple hopped IPA, exercise can be an acquired taste. Some people love it at first sip, some learn to love it, and others just plain don’t like it.
And that’s okay.
Disliking exercise isn’t some kind of moral failure.
It doesn’t mean you’re broken or lazy—it’s just a personal preference.
Still, there’s no denying that exercise is good for the human body.
But how do you exercise when you don’t like it?
And if you’re a coach, how can you help clients with this challenge—without coming off like the fitness police?
We turned to our in-house PN Coaches, who collectively have decades of experience helping people move more (including plenty of folks who’d given up on exercise altogether).
In this article, they share five refreshing strategies—plus over a dozen how-to tips—that can help you (or your clients) stop fighting with exercise.
“Why don’t others appreciate exercise like I do?”
First, a few words to all the folks who are passionate about fitness.
When you love something, it’s hard to understand why others don’t.
But there are plenty of reasons why a person might find exercise unpleasant or undesirable. For instance…
- Past experiences: If your fitness memories include being picked last for softball, hit in the face during dodgeball, or body-shamed in the gym, you might prefer to sit in the bleachers (or avoid sports altogether).
- Pain: For some people, certain forms of movement hurt. They can exacerbate chronic pain, injuries, and existing health conditions.
- Discomfort: Some dislike the feeling of movement, breathing hard, or getting sweaty. People in larger bodies or with disabilities may find exercise equipment or group classes simply aren’t built for them. On top of physical discomfort, this can trigger feelings of shame and being “out of place.”
- Perception: When exercise is treated like a chore, punishment, or a test of physical limits (“unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going”) some folks may opt-out altogether.
- Identity: Some people (like my beer drinking friend Dave) are turned off by fitness culture. They don’t want to be a “gym bro” or join a “spin cult”—their identity lies elsewhere.
Doesn’t exercise make people happy?
Physical activity can provide an endorphin rush, or “runner’s high.” (It’s also been shown to contribute to mental wellness.)
But that pleasurable dose of hormones isn’t as reliable as it’s made out to be.
“Individual reaction to exercise varies,” says Helen Kollias, PhD, science advisor at Precision Nutrition.
“Endorphin response can be tricky to measure, so there’s a lot we don’t know. But it’s possible that some people may produce more endorphins and/or be more sensitive to them. Genetic differences may play a role.”1
Dr. Kollias adds:
“The ‘runner’s high’ experience even varies day to day. One day a runner may experience an endorphin rush but nothing the next.”
Bottom line: Don’t assume your clients will experience a delicious endorphin rush simply by working harder. (But it’s a bonus if they do.)
Strategy #1: Stop trying to exercise.
Yes, you read that correctly.
“Stop trying” may sound like strange advice, but hear us out.
If exercise feels like an impossible, torturous task, the best approach might be to take it off the table completely.
A few reasons:
For one, the more you push against your own resistance (or your clients’), the more that resistance is likely to grow. Conversely, if you stop telling yourself you “should” exercise, you might discover you’re more likely to do it.
Also: You don’t HAVE to exercise.
Yes, it’s good for you. But you’re in the driver’s seat in this life. And you get to choose how you spend your time and energy.
That said, if you want to explore movement in a pressure-free way, check out these tips.
Try a “do nothing” experiment.
Here’s a weird idea: Limit your movement for a few days and see what happens.
“When a client tells me they don’t want to exercise, I say, ‘Great, don’t do it. In fact, don’t even move. Just lie in bed and do as little as possible,’” says PN Master Coach Kate Solovieva.
And what happens?
“Eventually most people are going to want to move in some way, of their own volition. They’ll say, ‘Wait a second, I actually want to move around a bit. I want to go for a walk’.”
This isn’t about tricking yourself into wanting to move; it’s about learning if and when movement does feel good for you. You might discover your body craves movement more than you realized.
Focus on other ways to improve your health.
It can be easy to fixate on the thing (you think) you’re bad at.
But when you do that, you can miss other (potentially easier, less stressful) opportunities for improvement.
“If you absolutely cannot or will not move in any way, think of it like this: You still have plenty of other ways to improve your health,” says PN Coach and Holistic Nutritionist Sarah Maughan.
“You could put your time and energy into improving your sleep, your stress management, your nutrition, and so on. Exercise isn’t the only ingredient in a healthy life.”
Of all the health-improving options available to you, what’s most appealing? Make that your priority for now.
Build your bucket list.
Rather than obsessing over how much you hate the gym, Solovieva suggests putting the focus on what you want to do.
“Sometimes, I’ll say: ‘Okay, let’s put exercise aside for a while. Instead, let’s talk bucket list. Tell me about the things you’re curious about, the things you want to try before you die’.”
The items on your bucket list might naturally inspire you to get moving (perhaps you want to be fit enough to cycle around Amsterdam or climb a volcano in Hawaii). Or not.
Regardless, the “bucket list” exercise can shift your focus towards what you want for yourself—which can be meaningful and energizing, no matter what you choose.
Brainstorm a bunch of things you want to try in your lifetime. Then consider: Which of these could you start working towards today?
Strategy #2: Aim for “movement” rather than “exercise.”
“People often assume they have to go straight into training for a marathon or lifting heavy weights,” says Solovieva. “But in order to get the benefit of movement, you don’t have to train. You can just move.”
And if you’re wondering how you’ll find big blocks of time to exercise—or even move?
“You don’t necessarily need to schedule time to exercise,” says Maughan. “Your movement could just be a pile of mini actions that add up over the day.”
Those “mini actions” could be anything: walking to the office water cooler for a drink; emptying the dishwasher or mowing the lawn; goofing around with your kids.
Bonus: Research shows that when you treat exercise as fun or play (rather than work), you’ll be less prone to hedonic compensation—the phenomenon of loading up on treats post-workout, negating a calorie burn, if that’s what you’re after.2
Either way: Moving rather than exercising might feel more accessible—and have less baggage attached to it.
Want to get moving? Try these tips.
Aim to slightly increase the ways you already move.
PN Coach Jeremy Fernandes points out that even if you hate movement, you might be doing more than you think.
“Unless you’re literally lying in bed all day, you’re probably getting some kind of movement. Just getting up in the morning, making breakfast, getting to work—all these things require movement, says Fernandes.
“So the real question is, How can you expand on the movement you’re already doing?”
For example—could you pace the bathroom while you brush your teeth? Circle the block after you take out the trash? Walk the dog for an extra few minutes? And so on.
Lean into the “mostly inactive” things you enjoy.
“One client of mine wanted to move more, but movement wasn’t her thing,” says Solovieva. “Her passion was cooking. So we focused on that: I encouraged her to cook more, to check out new recipes, and so on.”
Here’s the interesting part:
“The more she got into cooking, the more she moved. Without trying, she naturally became more physically active by grocery shopping, chopping, picking up pots and pans, and moving around her kitchen.”
In time, Solovieva’s client grew more comfortable moving. (She even eventually graduated to some home workouts.)
Cooking isn’t your only option. Many hobbies involve movement, even if they aren’t seen as “fitness activities.” For example:
- Love to read? Walk to the library or stroll around a bookstore.
- Like to paint? Try painting on a larger canvas so you’re encouraged to stand and make some larger arm movements.
- Shopping fanatic? Instead of shopping online, saunter through the mall or local shops.
And hey, if you’re a beer fan like my buddy Dave, maybe do a brewery tour, or walk to the beer store instead of driving.
Embrace the “everything counts” philosophy.
Get this: Just thinking that your daily activities “count” towards your fitness goals can make a difference.
One study conducted out of Harvard University found that if we believe our daily activities (like housework or child care) count as exercise, the physiological benefit of those activities is enhanced.3
The placebo effect can be a legitimate way to increase physical fitness, without changing your daily routine.
So, think about your daily routines, and appreciate how the activities you do are already contributing to your health.
Strategy #3: Do Less.
To reap the benefits of movement, you might need less than you think.
According to the CDC Physical Activity Guidelines, adults should aim to get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week (or 22 to 43 minutes a day).4
(Note: Time-crunched folks can also meet the guidelines by doing 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week.)
But exercise isn’t all-or-nothing: Everything counts.
If the above recommendations sound overwhelming to you, try these tips.
Break your goal into manageable pieces.
In her book, The Play Book: How to Get In the Habit of Good Health, coach and play expert Janet Omstead, PN2-MHC, suggests:
“If 22 minutes all at once feels like too much, just break up that 22 minutes into smaller chunks.”
For example, 22 minutes broken up over the course of the day could look like:
- 5 minutes of movement 5 times
- 8 mins of movement 3 times
- 11 mins of movement 2 times
(Small but effective exercise “snacks” are also called “trigger workouts.” Read more about them here: The intermittent workout method that could transform the way you exercise)
Start small and build slowly.
“You can also make 22 minutes the goal rather than the starting point,” says Omstead.
“You can even take a year, or longer to work up to 22 minutes. For example, if you start at 5 minutes per day and add 1 minute per day each month, at the end of a year you’d be at 17 minutes a day—and you’ll have built a regular daily habit, something many people never achieve.”
Explore the continuum.
If exercise seems like an all-or-nothing kind of thing (you’re either training for an IronMan or in full-on couch potato mode), start thinking on a spectrum.
“I ask clients to imagine a continuum from 0 to 10,” says Solovieva. “If 10 is ‘I move all the time and do everything perfectly’ and 0 is ‘I don’t move at all and just lie on the couch till I kick the bucket’, what are some options in between?”
One way to think about this is to imagine movement as a dial or volume knob. If you were to turn your volume knob up a bit—say a 2/10 or a 3/10—what might that look like?
When you explore the continuum you might find a level of activity that feels doable for you.
(And hey—this “dial” method works for basically all of your health habits. Learn more: Never press “pause” on your health and fitness again. This free tool is your secret weapon)
Strategy #4: Try stuff.
If you do want to move more—and ideally, find something you like, if not love—there’s no getting around it:
You’ll have to give some things a try.
That maybe means doing some stuff you might not like. Fortunately, there are ways to make the experimentation process more fun (or at least, not awful).
Here are some ideas.
Apply the 10 minute rule.
“Give yourself permission to try just 10 minutes of something. If you don’t like it, you can stop,” says PN Coach Pam Ruhland.
This low-pressure approach makes it easier to try new things: Get in the pool with your kids for just 10 minutes and see how it goes. Try 10 minutes of an online Zumba class or a yoga video on YouTube.
“Knowing you can quit can make it easier to get started—which is actually the hardest part,” says Ruhland.
Return to things you used to like.
“How did you love to play when you were young? Start there,” says Omstead.
“Make a list of all the ways you loved to play and be active when you were a kid. Did you jump rope? Play soccer? Explore the forest? Chase the ice cream truck down the street?”
Pick something from your list and try it. Yes, it might be harder as an adult. (Where do kids get the energy to jump rope for hours?) But it might also rekindle your playfulness.
And don’t forget, you can always quit after 10 minutes.
Create your “bingo card” of new activities.
Even if you think you hate ALL exercise, there are probably things you haven’t tried.
To experiment, Solovieva suggests creating a “bingo card” of new activities.
She explains: “On each square, put an activity you’d like to try: maybe yoga goes on one square, zumba, hiking, boxing, and so on.”
Then, for the next 30 or 60 days, aim to fill the bingo card by trying each activity.
“In the end, maybe you’ll still hate everything you tried,” says Solovieva. “But even if you don’t like the activities themselves, the process of experimenting can be weirdly fun.”
(If you like this idea, download our free PDF: Movement Bingo)
Strategy #5: Adjust your expectations.
Fitness culture has exploded. This can be a good thing when it encourages people to get active and try new things, but it can also be, well, intense.
These days, it seems you can’t just throw on some sweats and move your body; you have to go full BEAST MODE.
And it’s not enough to just get it done, you have to do something you LOVE [unicorn emoji, rainbow emoji, heart emoji].
Plus, your efforts should somehow result in six-pack abs no matter your age, gender, and lifestyle. #noexcuses
Let’s take the expectations down a notch, shall we?
Truth is, movement doesn’t require anything fancy, or have to yield some magical transformation overnight.
By adjusting your expectations around exercise, you can make the whole thing less of an ordeal… maybe even more fun.
Here’s what that can look like.
Don’t worry about “loving it”—aim for “meh” instead.
Exercise advocates will tell you to “find something you love.” But for some of us, “love” is too strong of a word.
Case in point: One day, Fernandes asked a previously inactive client what she loved about her new workout routine.
Her answer surprised him.
“I don’t love any of this,” she said. “I don’t love walking. I don’t love going to the gym. What I do feel is a sense of contentment after I’ve done it.”
But you know what? That’s okay, says Fernandes.
“The good new is that you don’t have to love it. The goal is to find something tolerable that adds some value to your life.”
Think of it like brushing your teeth: “No one gets really excited about doing it, but you know it’s important for your health, and it feels good after you do it,” says Fernandes.
Be nicer to yourself.
Years ago, a friend and I agreed we’d start working out.
Without intending to do so, we both took different approaches:
The night before, I’d write little notes of encouragement for myself to see first thing in the morning. Stuff like, “You are a badass.”
My friend, however, would wake up and say to herself: “Get up you lazy bum. That weight isn’t going to lose itself.”
Guess which one of us made it to our workout? (It was me.)
These results aren’t just anecdotal:
We interviewed a bunch of PN Certified coaches about what causes clients to quit, and they all agreed that “beating themselves up” was the #1 factor.
Research also shows that self-compassion—being kind and supportive to yourself—is positively associated with health-promoting behaviors like eating healthy, exercising, prioritizing sleep, and managing stress.5 6
(Want to give self-compassion go? Check out our Self-Compassion Quickie.)
It makes sense: Being a jerk to yourself pretty much guarantees you’re not going to have a good time, no matter what you’re doing.
So, watch your self-talk. Try to be kind and encouraging, and give yourself a gold star for your efforts, no matter how small.
Maybe even write a friendly note for yourself. Sounds cheesy, but it works.
Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.
- Fuss, Johannes, Jörg Steinle, Laura Bindila, Matthias K. Auer, Hartmut Kirchherr, Beat Lutz, and Peter Gass. 2015. “A Runner’s High Depends on Cannabinoid Receptors in Mice.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (42): 13105–8.
- Werle, Carolina O. C., Brian Wansink, and Collin R. Payne. 2015. “Is It Fun or Exercise? The Framing of Physical Activity Biases Subsequent Snacking.” Marketing Letters 26 (4): 691–702.
- Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer. 2007. “Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect.” Psychological Science 18 (2): 165–71.
- Piercy, Katrina L., Richard P. Troiano, Rachel M. Ballard, Susan A. Carlson, Janet E. Fulton, Deborah A. Galuska, Stephanie M. George, and Richard D. Olson. 2018. “The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 320 (19): 2020–28.
- Sirois, Fuschia M., Ryan Kitner, and Jameson K. Hirsch. 2015. “Self-Compassion, Affect, and Health-Promoting Behaviors.” Health Psychology: Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association 34 (6): 661–69.
- Dunne, Sara, David Sheffield, and Joseph Chilcot. 2018. “Brief Report: Self-Compassion, Physical Health and the Mediating Role of Health-Promoting Behaviours.” Journal of Health Psychology 23 (7): 993–99.
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
You can help people build nutrition and lifestyle habits that improve their physical and mental health, bolster their immunity, help them better manage stress, and get sustainable results. We’ll show you how.
If you’d like to learn more, consider the PN Level 1 Nutrition Coaching Certification.
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