It’s a fact: Most of us don’t exercise. And even if we do, we don’t do it often enough. According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 23% of U.S. adults actually met the physical activity recommendations in 2018. In case you didn’t know, the recommendations call for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise and two days of muscle-strengthening activity per week — minimum.
Many people know they should exercise more, yet struggle to stick with a routine. If you’re constantly starting and stopping your exercise routine, you may feel frustrated, and even helpless. However, there are five common reasons people often can’t make their routine stick. Once you know your reason, you’ll be one step closer to creating an exercise routine that lasts.
Here are five possible reasons you may struggle with an exercise routine:
YOU USE EXERCISE TO PUNISH YOURSELF OR COMPENSATE FOR YOUR DIET
Many of us have used exercise to punish ourselves for dietary “slip-ups,” or to compensate for indulging in one too many sweets or drive-thru meals. But using exercise as a form of punishment won’t help you sustain your routine over the long-term, says registered dietitian Callie Exas, certified personal trainer and founder of Callie Exas Nutrition and Wellness.
Instead, rethink your reason or motivation for exercising. Does exercise make day-to-day tasks — like walking up and down stairs or lifting boxes — easier? Do you have more energy during the weeks you exercise regularly? Is exercise empowering? Approach exercise with a more positive mindset and you may find it becomes more enjoyable. Plus, if you enjoy your exercise routine, you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
YOU THINK EXERCISE IS “ALL OR NOTHING”
You had a week’s worth of workouts planned out in advance, but then stress at work or with family threw you off your game and you couldn’t exercise the way you wanted to, so you just dropped exercise altogether. Sound familiar?
“People often won’t exercise because they have an all-or-nothing mindset and think, ‘If I can’t go super hard and crazy then it’s not worth it, so I may as well not work out at all,’” Exas says. But if you only exercise when you can complete every workout as-written, you may never exercise at all. Or, you’ll continue to get stuck in start-and-stop mode, and repeatedly start your routine over again.
Even if you can’t do your full workout as you’d planned, you’ll benefit from doing some form of exercise on a regular basis. Only have time and energy for a 10-minute workout or a 20-minute walk? Great. Go for it. “Just moving your legs and walking for 20 minutes can be super effective for staying consistent with your exercise routine,” Exas says.
You may find it helpful to have a back-up workout in mind for days when you can’t manage your planned routine. Just try to do something regularly, as this helps you keep the momentum going and you won’t feel like you’re constantly starting over.
YOU DO TOO MUCH, TOO SOON
Similar to the all-or-nothing mindset, some people think exercise always has to be intense to be effective. However, for newer exercisers in particular, too much intensity only makes it harder to stick with your routine.
If you’re just starting (or re-starting) a workout routine, your body isn’t used to exercise just yet, and you’ll get sore more easily than someone who’s been exercising consistently for months. Your body needs time to adapt to the new routine you’re introducing. If you try to keep up with a more experienced exerciser, you’ll likely feel tired and sore for days, which makes it hard to exercise consistently. You’ll also put yourself at risk of injury.
Instead of trying to jump right into an intense workout program, modify the intensity and duration to fit your current fitness level. This could mean starting with bodyweight exercises before using weights, Exas says. Or, instead of going out for a 30-minute run, you do 15–20 minutes and incorporate walking intervals. Listen to your body and adjust accordingly.
If you feel lost, consider working with a personal trainer for a few months. He or she can work with you to create a program that fits your abilities and goals and help ensure you’re not overdoing it.
YOU DON’T EAT ENOUGH
All too often, people pair a new exercise program with a drastic change in diet. Usually, this drastic change is a dramatic reduction in calories, and/or cutting out entire food groups (e.g., bread, meat, dairy).
But while research shows pairing dietary changes with an exercise routine is a more effective fat-loss strategy than relying solely on either component, cutting calories too low only makes it hard to stick with your exercise routine. “Your body needs fuel in order to work efficiently and effectively,” Exas says. “If you’re not feeding yourself correctly, or you’re not getting enough to eat, [your body] is going to conserve energy and try to heal itself.” The result: You’ll likely feel tired and you won’t go into your next workout feeling good.
If you’re a morning exerciser, make sure you’re getting some food into your system first thing. According to Exas, a banana can be a great option because it gives you the carbs you need to function without any heavy, slow-to-digest fat or protein. If you exercise after work, make sure you’re eating regularly throughout the day; don’t let yourself get to the point where you feel shaky or faint. Then, an hour or two before your workout, have a snack that combines a carb and a protein, like an apple with some peanut butter.
Of course, make sure you’re getting a post-workout snack or meal that contains carbs and protein to kickstart your recovery. Exas likes a serving of Greek yogurt with some honey and fruit.
YOU HATE YOUR EXERCISE ROUTINE
It seems obvious: People are less likely to do things they don’t like. But for some reason, many people try to force themselves to do exercises and workouts they don’t enjoy. Sure, exercise is often uncomfortable, but you should end your workout feeling good.
If you haven’t been able to stick with an exercise routine because you haven’t enjoyed it, experiment with different forms of exercise to see if something else clicks. There are many different workouts and sports out there for you to try, including rowing, swimming, running, cycling, general strength training, Pilates, martial arts, kettlebell training, rock climbing, barre, and high-intensity interval training classes. Try different classes and training styles to find something you enjoy.