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: 31/08/2017


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