Are You Hard-Wired To Hate Exercise?

Turns out there's a scientific explanation for why so many of us don't enjoy breaking a sweat.

Feb 22, 2013 at 10:30am | Leave a comment

Unlike some of the writers at xoJane, I tend to get nervous or wary about sharing the personal details of my private life. I mean, for some reason I’m totally okay telling you about how I love to pee in the shower, but I get scared to share “the real” stuff that’s going on with me. Now I’m not asking you to send me a tin of cookies for what I’m about to admit, except that I’m totally asking you to send me a tin of cookies for what I’m about to admit.

OK, here’s goes.

I’ve been depressed. Like, pretty depressed. Like, I have zero desire to leave the house or interact with people or do anything except sleep and read. This has been going on for quite a while -- months, I suspect -- although I think it took me a while to come to terms with it.

Now before you start knitting me scarves and sending me self-help books, I want you to know there’s nothing to worry about. I have a psychiatrist, a psychologist, an acupuncturist AND a psychic. I also have a dermatologist, which people said shouldn’t be grouped in this category, except do you know how happy amazing skin makes me? Exacula.

But despite my entire team of (very expensive -- thanks shitty health insurance!) professionals, I’ve still been a bit in the dumps lately. It’s hard to get out bed and when I do get out of bed, I am totally unmotivated to do, well, pretty much anything.

And when I say “anything,” mostly I mean “exercise.” This coming from the girl who used to love spin class, took weekly tennis lessons, and lived to snowboard. With every passing day, I just became more and more sedentary, unable to convince myself to even go on a quick run. I know going on a run would be good for me, both mentally and physically, but I just can’t talk myself into doing something I hate so much.

I grew up in a family of athletes. My mom used to run an absurd amount of miles every day, and my oldest brother set state records for both track and cross country and possibly even went to the Junior Olympics.

“You have a runner’s body,” they always told me. Except that there wasn’t one part of my body that actually enjoyed lifting my legs up to propel myself forward in a manner that was faster than walking.

But I always felt guilty about it. Like I was wasting some “talent” I was supposed to have. Like I was supposed to enjoy a sport that made me short of breath and sweaty.

Turns out: I might just not be wired to enjoy that type of exercise. According to a study out of Iowa State, how we interpret our body’s sensations during and after exercise plays a large role in whether or not we enjoy it. The physical capacity for exertion “beyond which the body becomes stressed and begins to feel bad” is different for everyone.

Without going into lots of scientific details, a lot of sedentary people “push beyond their intrinsic range when they exercise too quickly or too intensely, which can make them want to stop.” Your threshold can be increased, sure, but you have to keep exercising to increase it, something that’s hard to make yourself do when you’re not even enjoying it in the first place.

Obviously, it’s different for everyone. I went snowboarding this morning (DON’T TELL MY WORK) and after seven or eight runs through the trees, my quads were killing me. But in a weird way, it felt good.

Like most people, I fall somewhere in between “sedentary” and “athletic,” but whereas I take the burn as a sign I’m getting a good workout, a lot of people just feel uncomfortable and, naturally, want to stop.

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Self-portrait in the trees.

The study points out that elite athletes have “even been dubbed 'benign masochists' because they appear to enjoy the pain of exertion.” I don't know about you, but that made me feel a lot better. I mean, don’t tell the elite athletes I said this, but basically the scientists are saying there’s something wrong with them. Which makes sense because who wants to physically exert yourself so hard you have to soak in a bathtub full of ice afterward?! It’s always nice to have proof of something you totally suspected already.

Here’s the problem though: It actually IS good for you to exercise. Especially when exercising is the last thing you feel like doing. After a month of therapy sessions when I admitted that I just couldn’t make myself get up and go anymore, and that even snowboarding had lost its luster, my therapist told me that if I didn’t start exercising he was going to have to assume I was being “self-destructive.” (OK, fine, there was also some talk of drinking mixed in there.) And here’s the thing: He was right.

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Lately, I pretend to "exercise," but just end up with a beer in my hand. HEALTHY!

So we made a list of the ways in which I talk myself out of exercising:

  • I have too much work.
  • I don't have enough time.
  • I don’t feel like it.
  • I’m too tired.
  • I’ll do it tomorrow.

And then we made a list of why it’s important that I exercise despite those reasons:

  • It will give me energy.
  • It will improve my mood.
  • It’s good for me physically.
  • I need to get outside more.

Lastly, we made a list of what I needed to do in order to talk myself IN to exercising every day. First on the list?

So that I don't have to talk about this in therapy anymore. Seriously. 

And then we came up with several ways for me to ensure I actually go out and do something every day. They don’t all work, but here are a few:

  • Spend five full minutes talking myself into exercising. If I still can’t do it, write down what’s preventing me.
  • Make it fun. Do something outside. Snowboarding, a bike ride, tennis. For you it may be a long walk, a class with a friend, surfing, rowing, trampoline aerobics, going on a hike. One thing to note from the study is that participants who exercised in nature “reported feeling happier and their exercise was less difficult.”
  • Make it efficient. This is a huge one for me. I’m often too busy to drive to the gym to take a spin class. A fifty-minute class ends up taking an hour and a half of my day. The best way for me to get exercise, even if I hate it? Going on a run. Download a Couch to 5K app and make a great running mix. It’s over before you know it.
  • Do it with a friend. Sure, I loved spin class, but what I really loved was seeing my best friend at least once a week and going out to dinner with her after. Plus, doing anything with a friend makes you accountable. You have to show up otherwise you’re a total flake.
  • And the thing I’ve done the most to actually make my lazy ass get up and go do something? (Warning: it’s going to sound so lame.) I put a post-it note on my iPhone every night that says “EXERCISE!” on it. I know it’s there, so I don’t even have to look at it. As soon as my alarm clock goes off, I throw on my shorts and sneakers before I even have time to talk myself out of it and I’m out the door before I even realize what’s happening.

The most important thing to remember though is to take it slow. As the study says, some women might have a hard time just doing the dishes or cooking. Some people reach their thresholds after just a minute of walking on the treadmill. So walk one block. And then two. And eventually you’ll be able to walk three and then four. And next thing you know you’ll be running a marathon. (Ew, just kidding. That sounds like the most extreme form of torture ever invented.)

Just remember: you may actually be hard-wired not to enjoy exercise. So if you’re miserable at first, it’s not your fault. Don't beat yourself up. Just be stoked you made an effort. And keep trying to make an effort because, unfortunately, the only thing that’s going to change feeling miserable about exercise is having enough positive experiences that you actually start to enjoy it. And you’re not going to get that right away. Kind of like sex! 

Ultimately, you have to do what feels right and good for you. I suspect I’m hard-wired (right now) not to enjoy exercising, but I can sense such a difference when I actually get outside and push myself and breath fresh air that I know I don’t have any choice but to re-wire myself and hope that it won’t always be a form of torture. Wish me luck.

How do you make yourself exercise when you’re just not feeling it? Any advice for those of us who have a hard time getting off of the couch?