Overcoming the barriers to exercise

We all know that exercise is good for our physical health, but did you know that it can have a noticeable effect on your mental health, too?

Dr Clare Stevinson is a lecturer in exercise psychology at Loughborough University. She explains the science of why exercise is good for our brains, as well as our bodies.

"The psychological benefits of regular exercise are well documented," explains Clare. "When mood state is studied before and after exercise, negative feelings such as depression, tension, confusion and fatigue all drop and there is a spike in vigour or energy. This is a healthy psychological state to be in and exercise does typically produce that in people."

Another, perhaps unexpected, benefit of taking on the challenge of something like Couch to 5K or Strength and Flex, is increased self-confidence and self-esteem. "Tackling something and achieving success in one domain can produce a real mental boost," Clare explains. "This is known as ‘mastery’. You’ve mastered something you didn’t necessarily think you’d be able to. That gives you a self-confidence that transfers into other aspects of life, and can feed into your self esteem and self perceptions, which is very important for your mental health."

Of course, despite all this, it is often our brains, rather than our bodies, that let us down when it comes to starting something like Couch to 5K or Strength and Flex.

But whatever it is that’s stopping you from getting out there and having a go, it might not be as much of a barrier as you think. Here, Clare talks through some of the most common reasons why we might avoid exercising, and gives some advice on how to overcome them.

'I don’t have time'

This is a genuine barrier, but it’s like anything you want to do – you have to prioritise and manage your schedule so that it fits in. It’s very easy to use time as an excuse, but you just need to work out ways around it.

'I’m too tired'

Fatigue is often a real barrier. You might get home from work at the end of the day and feel worn out, but often you are just experiencing mental fatigue. If you do go out and exercise, you’ll find you’re invigorated and it will give you a whole load more energy. It’s a nice paradox that exercise will relieve that tiredness.

'I don’t have the willpower'

A key part of something like Couch to 5K and Strength and Flex is staying motivated. One very powerful way is to make yourself accountable by doing the plan with a friend or family member, so you can encourage each other. It means you’ve got someone to report to, to explain why you didn’t turn up, or someone you can share your lack of motivation with.

A good technique for people who prefer to train alone is what the experts call "self-regulation". For this, you could start a diary or a blog. Being faced with an empty page if you miss a session can be a powerful incentive to keep going.

'I don’t like exercise'

Often when people say "I don’t like exercise" what they really mean is they didn’t like sport at school – going out for a cross country run or playing hockey. Also, for people who haven’t exercised for many years – or maybe never – they don’t think of themselves as an exerciser or a sporty person. But the good news is that there are so many ways of being active, it’s just a case of finding something you enjoy. As well as jogging, it could be tennis or badminton, it might be hiking, it might be mountain-biking, canoeing, frisbee, aqua aerobics or spinning. There are so many sports available to us now.

'It’s hard work'

Often people don’t want to exercise because they think that it’s hard work, or they start out and feel it's too hard, and so they give up. That’s where the Couch to 5K and Strength and Flex plans are ideal. They start slow and build up gradually. 

For example, you can't start running 5K without having to gradually build up, and that’s why the progression element of Couch to 5K is so crucial. You improve gradually until you can go further and faster, and you forget it was hard in the beginning.

'The weather is too bad for exercising'

Lots of people struggle in bad weather if they exercise outside, as they don’t like the dark or the cold. Personally, I love running in the rain – it’s a really nice sensation. Not everyone likes the idea of it, but I find the rain cools you down and there are generally fewer people around. You’re going to get a shower at the end of it and put your clothes in the wash anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. Learn to love the weather – it’s bracing with the wind behind you, and it can be fun splashing through puddles.

There are advantages to it, too. If you’re self-conscious, you can put layers of clothes on and a hat, and if there are people around they’re not going to recognise you.

'I’ve missed a session. I’ll never get back on track'

It happens to everybody – no one sails through never missing a session. It's normal. The thing is not to let that mean a return to a sedentary lifestyle. Just start again and bear in mind you’re not starting back at the same place as before. You may have to redo some of what you’ve already done, but you’ll get back to where you were, and faster. The body adapts quickly – especially if it’s doing something it's familiar with.

Page last reviewed: 15/09/2014

Next review due: 15/09/2016


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The 6 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Gordon Freeman said on 29 July 2015

Forgetting an obvious one, money.

Where it was once a free service, the NHS now charge people for a fitness declaration to attend sport or renew membership of sports clubs where such a declaration is needed. This is especially true as one gets into ones 40s and 50s. I have seen charges of between £14.50 and £85 for exactly the same stamp. Not a letter - a stamp. A quick internet search of "Non NHS charges" by GPs reveals some very uneven territory. A real postcode lottery for those interested in maintaining membership of a sports club.

I was personally quoted over £80 pounds and a 3 - 4 week waiting time just to stamp my declaration of fitness so I can renew membership of the sports club I attend. Im fifty now and fairly fit since I try to stay in sport. This barrier recently introduced by the NHS is a difficult one since my income is not increasing towards retirement whilst charges for using the NHS are going up dramatically.

Its a shame that the NHS have got this so very wrong. The earlier comment about putting your money where your mouth is could not be more true!

All this encouragement by the NHS is just lip-service while they charge fantastical prices for sports fitness declarations. The biggest barrier for me in sport right now is the astronomical charge (and long time delay of 2-3 weeks) my GP levies for a rubber stamp. Who would have thunk it reading the article above that the NHS have themselves installed the most significant barrier of all.

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HangingOn said on 30 June 2015

It's not a psychological issue - it's a physiological one. Many people do not have the biological capacity to run 5k. Period. It's really unkind and demoralizing to promote this program as if anyone can do it. They can't. Google exercise non-responders for more info. I wonder how long it will be before this comment is censored (removed) as other comments by me have been,

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simonfromsurrey said on 22 August 2014

I'm 47 and 18 stone (Was 20). I stopped football 10 ears ago and piled on the weight

At work we've decided (about 15 of us) to do Couch to 5k. I had being doing the gym for a while (inc last night) and today managed week 1 session 1 with the help of my wife.

It was hard, but worth it. I feel physically shattered but mentally elated. November 12th and the 5k run seems a million miles away, but I've taken the first step.

So far to go

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jane2blue said on 09 July 2014


The author forgot about the loneliness barrier!

find it difficult as a young heart patient to find others to exercise with outside i'm told that I can do what ever exercise I want but get little advice about how to join in. Alcohol if you can't drink it because of a medical condition is seen as an impingement on your social life when I ask about this I get told to exercise a indoors or on my own i'm assuming no. Young adult epileptics or diabetics are being told to drink on their own when they complain about the restrictions on thus activity imposed by their conditions. How do yoiu find people in your own peer group to exercise within they way yiuwant to exercise if you can'_t meet the average expectations of others who do regular exercise.

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jesuisstan said on 18 February 2014

I am 5years post liver transplant I also have hypothyroidism and type 2 diabetes my transplant was due to PBC I am 63 years of age I would like to have one of these people come to me and get me from couch to 5 K
I hear how wonderful it is to exercise can somebody give me a plan look at my case just tell me how to do it
Remember not everybody is the same Lets put your money where you mouth is

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Anonygirl said on 13 August 2013

These are just the surface excuses. The real barriers are much harder to say out loud - 'I don't want to find out or face up to how unfit I am', 'I don't want anyone to see all my bits wobbling' or (for the mums out there) 'I leak when I run ten paces, never mind 5k'. (Did you ever see incontinence pants on a list of running gear?)

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